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Olympic spirit falters in quake zone

By Carrie Gracie
BBC News, Sichuan

The Beijing Olympics open in exactly one week and China is putting the finishing touches to its preparations.

A woman cries in front of a collapsed building in Beichuan, Sichuan province on 19 July 2008
Many people remain traumatised by the impact of the earthquake
But as it looks forward, it is also looking back, making last minute changes to the opening ceremony to commemorate those who died in the Sichuan earthquake.

The Olympic torch is due to travel through the quake zone this weekend.

For parents washing their babies at the communal tap or parents grieving for the children they will never bathe again, it feels a long way from glossy Beijing and lofty talk of the Olympic spirit.

The people in Leigu tent city come from Beichuan and their spirit is not showy but more a matter of quiet dignity and resilience.

They have been living here six or eight to a tent for nearly three months, since an entire valley and a city were lost under rock and water, entombing tens of thousands.

But they do not dwell on their suffering. There are other crushed cities and other tent encampments; the official death toll for the quake now stands at nearly 70,000 with another 20,000 missing and nearly 400,000 injured.

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All over this region hang slogans exhorting people to show the Olympic spirit in confronting the challenge of reconstruction.

The rescue and relief work involved 140,000 troops, 100,000 volunteers and a vast mobilisation of resources from government, industry and citizens.

And when the authorities here talk of the Olympic spirit, they mean that to put this region back together again will demand the same firmness of purpose from top to bottom that has marked preparations for the Olympic Games.

Hence the decision to bring the Olympic flame here.

'Only friend'

I met some 18-year-olds from Beichuan high school rehearsing a ceremony to welcome it.

They still have nightmares and they dream about their parents and their homes
Luo Huili, carer
They told me some classmates would not be able to take part because they were still in hospital recovering from their injuries.

They had all been on the fifth floor of the teaching block when the quake struck and had jumped from windows to survive.

The younger children in the classrooms below were crushed and the school lost 1,000 pupils.

The Communist Party secretary told me seeing the torch and feeling part of the Olympics would help them pull through.

For some of the survivors of the quake, there is less Olympic fever and more lasting trauma.

People wait to receive food and water at a temporary settlement in Mianzhu on 19 July 2008
Hundreds of thousands are dependant on handouts of food and water
I met an orphan whose parents were killed and who saw his mother's body in the rubble of his home.

Ten-year-old Zhao Guodong has epilepsy and while his much-loved twin sister has been taken 1,000 miles (1,600 km) away to an orphanage for talented children, he has been consigned to a home for the disabled.

"My sister was my only friend and I miss her," he told me, as he drew a picture of his house with two twins standing in flowers and grass with their pet cat beside them.

'Scared of the dark'

Nearly three months on from the quake, Guodong and the other earthquake orphans are still struggling to come to terms with what happened, according to carer Luo Huili.

Temporary housing and schools in Yingxiu on 19 July 2008
Many expect to be in temporary houses for months to come
"They are all scared of the dark, scared of being alone. They still have nightmares and they dream about their parents and their homes."

"So we don't leave them on their own, we tell them to be brave. And we give them that extra bit of love.'

Guodong would like his sister back and a new mum and dad.

But the Olympic torch will come and go through Sichuan this weekend without solving his problems.

And while the Games themselves will provide light relief for some of the survivors watching on flickering screens in the tent cities, putting lives here back together in a way that makes sense is a challenge that even the Olympic spirit cannot overcome.





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