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Tomb-sweeping day to proceed amid Sichuan quake's rubble

THE barbed wire around Beichuan's old county seat was gone.

The Sichuan Province county that perished in last year's devastating earthquake reopened yesterday morning to former residents who wished to mourn the dead ahead of the annual tomb-sweeping day, which falls on Saturday.

Beichuan County, which has been closed since May 20 last year, will be open for four days through the special day.

The mourning crowd began pouring into the devastated county at 7am yesterday. Police officers checked IDs to make sure only natives of Beichuan entered.

Most mourners brought incense, candles and flowers to the ruins of former schools, homes and offices. They shed tears and spent a few hours remembering their lost loved ones.

Thousands of white paper flowers and heart-shaped cards were tied to the fence around the collapsed Beichuan High School in memory of the students and teachers killed in the quake.

"I burned some paper money for my wife last week, from atop a hill that overlooks the old county seat," said Qiao Hong, 34. "It was her birthday."

Almost 11 months after the disaster, Qiao was still hesitant to go back to his old home, fearing memories of his past would haunt him.

"I feel my son is still there, waiting for me to take him home from kindergarten."

Ghost county

The mother and son were among at least 4,700 people listed as missing under the rubble of Beichuan. In addition to the 15,600 confirmed deaths, the county lost two-thirds of its population in the quake.

Yesterday's reopening of the ghost county was a major challenge for the local government.

Sanitation workers had to sterilize the ruins that used to be homes, schools, teahouses and workshops; health workers and ambulances stood by, ready to provide first-aid to grieving mourners.

The county government also had to clean the streets of vendors, mostly quake survivors who eked out a living selling postcards of the quake site, incense and paper money for the dead.

The government arranged 10 buses that offered free rides for the mourners to travel from their new homes in the nearby city of Mianyang.

Qiao's former home, located about 1 kilometer from what used to be his son's kindergarten, was an apartment building that used to house dozens of workers from the county's telecom company. The building remained intact, but entry was forbidden because of safety concerns.

"Any plans for the future? I don't know for sure. Maybe I'll marry again, sometime next year, have a child and try to live the way I used to live."

Qiao has a girlfriend, who has been cooking and doing most household chores for him for six months.

"But the time is not ripe. Not yet."


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