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    Lost and found: How survivors of the Sichuan earthquake rebuilt their lives
    Lost and found: How survivors of the Sichuan earthquake rebuilt their lives
    CHINA

    Lost and found: How survivors of the Sichuan earthquake rebuilt their lives

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    by
    Mimi Lau and Choi Chi-yuk
    Mimi Lau and
    Choi Chi-yuk
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    No one in China’s Sichuan province had any idea that their lives would be forever changed on May 12, 2008.

    On that fateful day, the southwestern province was hit by a magnitude-8 earthquake. 87,000 people lost their lives, and homes and schools were reduced to rubble.

    Those who survived lost almost everything, and had to rebuild their lives from scratch. These three survivors told us what happened to them after the disaster.

    Miracle Baby

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    Pan Xiaoai, 10, knew little of what her mother, Zhang Xiaoyan, went through to give birth to her.

    At that time, Pan’s parents were living in a government-built block on the outskirts of Chengdu, a city perhaps best known for its pandas.

    When the earthquake struck, the seven-storey building crumbled instantly, trapping Zhang, who was eight months pregnant with Pan.

    Zhang Xiaoyan was rescued after being trapped in debris for 52 hours.
    Zhang Xiaoyan was rescued after being trapped in debris for 52 hours. Photo: SCMP

    “I couldn’t pity myself,” the mother said. “I just kept thinking that the most pitiful one was the little baby girl inside me who would soon die before she could even get to see this world.”

    Mother and child almost didn’t make it.

    For two days, Zhang could only be fed food and water through a small hole in the rubble, as rescuers struggled to find a way to pull her to safety.

    As the hours passed, it became harder to breathe and she grew sleepy. Outside, her husband, Pan Yuncheng, who was away when the ceiling caved in, yelled desperately for her to stay awake.

    Xiaoai was born about a month after the earthquake.
    Xiaoai was born about a month after the earthquake. Photo: SCMP

    When she was finally lifted out of the ruins, she was welcomed by thunderous applause and joyful shouts of thanks.

    Her daughter, born one month later, was to have been named “Yingao,” meaning “to welcome the Olympics,” which Beijing was to host in August that year.

    But after the quake, the couple decided to name her “Xiaoai,” or “little love,” instead: to honor those whose love and care helped see them through the disaster.

    Moving on, childless

    Not every family was as lucky.

    Schoolteacher Liu Ning, 52, and his wife lost all will to live after their only daughter was killed in the earthquake.

    A few months later, in September, the couple tried, but failed, to kill themselves, Liu said.

    Liu had led more than 130 of his pupils in Beichuan Secondary School to safety when the quake struck, but his own daughter did not make it out in time. More than 1,000 students were killed when the building crumbled.

    Group 5
    The earthquake took everything I had
    -
    Schoolteacher Liu Ning

    “The earthquake took everything I had. My only beloved daughter … she was not even 13,” he said. “She was my biggest pride and hope for the future.”

    The grieving parents tried for another child. Liu’s wife was pregnant twice but miscarried both times – Liu puts the blame on their poor living conditions and a lack of nutrition.

    “It was so hard just to ask for an extra bottle of water and instant noodles. And when winter came, we didn’t have enough clothes and blankets to keep warm. My wife caught one cold after another and eventually lost our baby,” Liu recounted.

    Liu said he was still recovering from the loss of his daughter, but he had turned his grief into a dedication to teaching.

    “Seeing my pupils turn out well is the best way for me to remember my daughter,” he said. “My pupils often refer to me as their ‘papa’ and I see them as my own.”

    Zou Hongmei lost several fingers in the earthquake, but she feels lucky to survive the disaster.
    Zou Hongmei lost several fingers in the earthquake, but she feels lucky to survive the disaster. Photo: SCMP

    Noble calling

    Earthquake survivor Zou Hongmei, 19, has found her calling to become an elementary school teacher.

    Ten years ago, she was a third-grader in the town of Yingxiu, Wenchuan county. After the quake hit the school, half of all her schoolmates and teachers died.

    The teenager girl lost several fingers after the quake. But she made it out alive thanks to her Chinese-language teacher, Ms Fan.

    When the quake first struck, the children crouched under their desks, but when the shaking intensified, Ms Fan told them to run out of the building as fast as they could. The school building crumbled seconds later, killing the teacher.

    Zou was interviewed by the South China Morning Post one year after the Sichuan earthquake.
    Zou was interviewed by the South China Morning Post one year after the Sichuan earthquake. Photo: SCMP

    Besides Ms Fan, Zou also sees another teacher, Zhang Miya, as a role model – even though he had never taught her.

    Zhang used his body to shield two of his pupils when the building came down on them. The two pupils were later saved, but Mr Zhang died.

    “With my limited power, I want to help others, just like what Mr Zhang did for my fellow schoolmates,” she said.

    Zou starts college later this year.

    MIMI LAU
    MIMI LAU
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    Mimi is a contributor to Inkstone and a reporter at the South China Morning Post. An experienced and passionate journalist, she believes firmly in giving a voice to the voiceless.

    CHOI CHI-YUK
    CHOI CHI-YUK
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    Chi-yuk is a contributor to Inkstone. He covers Chinese politics for the South China Morning Post.

    MIMI LAU
    MIMI LAU
    arrow rightarrow right
    Mimi is a contributor to Inkstone and a reporter at the South China Morning Post. An experienced and passionate journalist, she believes firmly in giving a voice to the voiceless.

    CHOI CHI-YUK
    CHOI CHI-YUK
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    Chi-yuk is a contributor to Inkstone. He covers Chinese politics for the South China Morning Post.

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