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Quake memories still haunt survivors nine months on

WEN Jia rushed out of her dormitory with a swarm of screaming schoolmates when a mild aftershock hit Dujiangyan on a November night. With the devastating Sichuan quake just months back, she recalled the horrible moment on May 12 when she was buried under a collapsing school building.

During the aftershock, the 15-year-old says, everything that happened during the big quake flashed before her eyes.

The quake killed nearly 70,000 people, including 51 of her classmates in Juyuan Middle School in Sichuan Province.

"I thought I wouldn't be afraid any more, but this was the first time I experienced an aftershock in the same environment, a school," she says.

Wen was buried for nearly six hours. She suffered only slight head and leg injuries and soon recovered. She has been haunted, however, by the memory of her deskmate struck dead by the collapsed ceiling.

She remembers the dead, cold feet of two classmates who were trapped with her.

"We kept encouraging each other, but they lost their breath before the rescuers came," she says.

Students from ruined Juyuan Middle School were more sensitive to aftershocks than other students, says Feng Kai, principal of Dujiangyan High School, where Wen Jia now studies.

The Chinese government and many NGOs sent psychologists and counselors to help survivors, including Wen.

However, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, an anxiety disorder that follows terrifying events, continues to take its toll. It will take time for Wen and many others to come to terms with their ordeal.

"They stayed outside until late at night. We could tell they lacked a sense of security," says Feng.

Other quake victims' stories:

Luo Shibin, 45, an official responsible for relocating quake survivors in Pingwu County, Mianyang City, collapsed after working more than 12 hours on October 24.

Gao Xueyuan was in Luo's team that was responsible for relocating 1,200 households and improving infrastructure. He and Luo had just eaten.

Guo says they hadn't taken a weekend off since May 12 and the last time he took his four-and-half-year-old son out to play was in April.

"We were very tired, but we had no choice," he says.

After Luo's collapse, the local government immediately ordered all officials to take compulsory vacations in the last two months of last year and to take weekends off. They did not make Luo a role model telling others to learn from him - as they once would have done.

Tang Chengyi, a small mine operator, is still trying to build his house.

Before the big quake, Tang was building a temporary wooden house in a mountainous area of Pingwu County to get through the freezing winter. But his back was injured, and his house and truck were damaged in the quake.

After treatment in Yunnan Province for a month, Tang returned and started a permanent house for his family with government support. It provided around 20,000 yuan (US$2,927) and authorized special loans of up to 50,000 yuan for each household.

But an aftershock in August ruined the first floor of construction, the government banned further building in the area and Tang started over.

Now the 45-year-old lives in a temporary house. He awaits for land for a permanent home.

The new house will be finished late this year. Tang estimates it will take five to eight years to repay the loan and for life to return to normal.

"Actually I still haven't figured out where to start my new life," he says.

Tian Fugang's life was transformed by the quake. The 22-year-old technician suffered major paralysis and has been getting therapy in a rehabilitation center.

He learned to turn himself over in bed has had reconsider his relationship with his girlfriend.

"I don't want to be a burden to her. So if I cannot rely on myself, I will have to break up," he says.

He now practices hard and hopes to be chosen as a professional disabled athlete one day.

Every day he walks with a special support for three or four hours, trains on parallel bars for half an hour, rides a bicycle for half an hour and has acupuncture for one hour.

More than 350,000 people were injured in the quake, around 100,000 of them were hospitalized. Many need rehabilitation but Sichuan has only been able to provide therapy for 6,000 people.

Student Wen Jia says she has learned an effective way to overcome her depression, thanks to a lot of counseling.

"The experts told me to think more about happy times with my classmates instead of the dreadful moment of their deaths," she says. "It's important to push the sad thoughts away and substitute good ones."

Wen also tries to help her classmates' parents who lost their children. One couple wanted to break up because of the unbearable sadness, which made them quarrel every day. Wen has been visiting them, talking to them and encouraging them to move on with their lives, leaving their pain behind.

And in a recent aftershock, although she was scared, Wen organized her roommates to run down the stairs hand in hand and went back to look for former schoolmates from Juyuan Middle School.

"I experienced the quake and survived it. I have to be strong," she says.

"I only hope I won't be afraid again when I recall the scene next time."


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