Sunday, 12 May 2013

Official and Unofficial Remembrance

A clock showing the time the 8.0-magnitude quake shook Sichuan in 2008
I remember five years ago sitting at my desk in Beijing at 2.28pm and suddenly feeling very woozy, as if I had drunk too much alcohol, but didn't.

It only lasted a few seconds, but was a very strange sensation. A few minutes later a colleague came to tell me there was an earthquake in Sichuan and a few hours later we were able to see the overwhelming images of destruction on the television.

Many of my colleagues could not sleep that night, seeing buildings reduced to rubble and wondering if there were any survivors.

A week later at the exact same time, we all stood at our desks to remember two minutes' of silence as alarms wailed throughout the city. It was unprecedented, but also the central government was anxious to claim this event as one of propaganda.

Five years on the government still continues to remember the catastrophe as a triumph of the human spirit, but others, particularly parents who lost their only children, are still wondering if they will ever find out who was responsible for constructing the shoddily-built schools in which their children died.

Some have given up petitioning and quietly taken sums of money from the government, others continue to mourn in private and fight for justice.

The BBC managed to secretly interview one woman who lost her twin girls five years ago. The emotions are still raw today, but she somehow manages to live each day with the help of Christianity.

When the BBC tried to interview others, the crew was stopped by the local government, questioned and then suggested the authorities would round up people the foreign media outlet could meet with instead.

And as expected, the government wanted the BBC to meet families who claimed to be relatively happy, rebuilding their lives, having another child or starting new businesses.

Today dissident artist Ai Weiwei released a video on YouTube called Remembrance, or 念 (nian) with voice recordings of names of students who died in the earthquake. He started collecting the names in 2010.

His number of student casualties is over 5,000. To this day the government still refuses to release the official number for fear of demands for responsibility...

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