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Remembering a son of Sichuan

Al Jazeera revisits the Zhao family, whose 11-year-old son was buried in the 2008 earthquake.
Last modified: 20 Aug 2012 18:10

No doctor ever diagnosed Zhao Xinghua with alcoholism. But day after day, he downs cups of baijiu, that potent Chinese drink distilled from sorghum, while Mrs Zhao purses her lips and stays silent. She disapproves, but has long given up protesting, believing him a lost cause.

Zhao Xinghua didn't always drink. But four years ago he lost his 11-year-old son, Zhao Yi, in the magnitude 7.9 earthquake which hit China's southwestern province of Sichuan. Zhao Yi was at school that afternoon before the start of his English class on the ground floor, but he ran upstairs to help a friend with homework. When the tremors started, children on the ground level made a run for it, but the cement-block building tumbled seconds later and crushed everyone else who remained inside.

Parents arrived on the scene and clawed at boulders with their bare hands. The earthquake had hit a region the size of Spain and government rescue teams, while on the way, were slow coming with their heavy machinery of diggers and bulldozers.

Zhao Yi did not die immediately. The father located the boy caught underneath slabs of concrete, his leg smashed and stuck between two beam blocks. He couldn't see his son, but they could hear each other through the debris. Mr Zhao faced the Herculean task of lifting the entire side of the building in order to save his son. Alongside other desperate parents, he worked away with his shovel.

On the third day, Zhao Yi said, "Daddy, I'm hungry." And then he died.

Anger

Half of the students from Wudu Primary School did not surivive. Across the province, school buildings had collapsed. In the succeeding days, people across the country began to wonder why most of the government buildings had stood firm, but the schools had fallen apart. Corrupt officials had cut corners, but ensured their own offices met building and construction codes.

The ensuing anger from parents, some who have since turned into full-time activists and dissidents, have been well-documented by journalists. It was also the focus of an investigation by artist-turned-activist, Ai Weiwei, who took his famous trip down south the year after the earthquake in order to collect evidence. Sichuan authorities responded by beating him so badly, the artist had to undergo emergency brain surgery.

I remember standing in Ai Weiwei's studio office where he'd posted against a wall a list of all the children who had died in the Sichuan quake. I searched for Zhao Yi's name. It took a few minutes; the list has more than five thousand names and it remains an unfinished project, halted by the Chinese government. It's estimated some 70,000 people died in the earthquake.

It has been one of the most difficult stories I've covered. Mr Zhao calls Al Jazeera's office at the start of every Chinese New Year to wish us well. He is not just a story - but, I guess, kind of our friend. And when the channel asked us to revisit any report of ours from the past five years, it was clear to our team who we should see and where we should go. And I personally wanted to know if Mr Zhao had been drinking less.

Of all the things the earthquake did not destroy, it was little Zhao Yi's wood frame bed. Mr Zhao kept the bed in his rebuilt house, in a special bedroom for his ghost son. At the head of the bed sit two portraits, of father and son. Mr Zhao explains it's because he doesn't want his son to feel lonely at night.

"You know - I don't mention this often to others - but sometimes I cook my son's favourite meal and set it out on the table as if he is still around," says Mr Zhao.

China's one-child policy meant the Zhaos only had Zhao Yi as a son. As painful the prospect has been for them to consider having another child, and as strong as they feel about how their son can never be replaced, the couple has also been aware of their loneliness. With the desire to have a more hopeful future, they have taken up the government's offer of free in vitro fertilisation assistance to parents whose children were killed in the earthquake.

Mrs Zhao has tried the procedure twice, and has twice failed. In her forties, she may simply be past her pregnancy age, even with medical help. Irrational as it may seem, the couple's dynamics have been complicated by Mrs Zhao's unwarranted feelings of guilt that she cannot produce another child.

Mr Zhao's persistence probably doesn't help the situation.

"I will never give it up, all I can do is keep trying. I am desperate to have my own child. That's why I work so hard," says Mr Zhao, as he stands in his new medical clinic and pharmacy. Four years ago, Mr Zhao vowed not to leave the demolished town. He operated a small medical stall and said he'd build a new store. He told us he wanted to help his neighbours and other quake victims.

Today, Mr Zhao has remained true to his words. But the disaster killed so many residents - about half the population - that Wudu township was absorbed into neighboring Han Wang township, and the Wudu name itself has disappeared from the map. Perhaps not wishing to stick around to fester in collective depression, many of his neighbours have scattered across the country to build new lives. Local governments in Sichuan handled reconstruction to varying degrees of success (some officials reportedly continued to cut corners and allegedly  pocketed earthquake aid funds), but in Wudu, officials presented every family with an apartment in a new city six kilometres down the road.

Rebuilding

With both an apartment and a new medical clinic, Mr Zhao is on much more solid financial footing than before the earthquake. And he says the residents who chose to stay behind have also, materially, fared well.

"We needed to survive, and everyone's priority was to live in a house that was built safely. The government and banks arranged many low-interest loans and together with our savings, many people here were able to rebuild houses fairly quickly. Some were even completed just one year after the earthquake."

The new school, sturdy and earthquake-safe, has been built right next to the Zhaos' medical clinic. Mr Zhao used to saunter over during the months of the buildings' construction. He says this school would withstand a major earthquake.

"The foundation was dug down to a depth of twenty metres. Students are very lucky to study in this new school," he says.

But its close proximity to Mr Zhao's workplace has meant seeing young children go to and from school every day. It's a painful reminder of his loss, and another contributing factor to his daily drinking, which continues unabated. Mr Zhao says he won't ever leave the area.

"My son is buried here. I can't move to the new town. No matter where I go, I always carry my son's photograph in my wallet. I will stay here."