HONG KONG—One year after a massive earthquake killed thousands in China's southwestern Sichuan province, bereaved parents say authorities are preventing them from holding memorials for children who died when their school buildings collapsed.
Parents who tried to protest the allegedly shoddy construction of school buildings in Dujiangyan township—one of the region's worst-hit towns—said police had detained several people, as dozens more were under house arrest or held at hotels outside the area during the May 12 anniversary.
“Our husbands were detained by the Dujiangyan police when we came to the museum in Jianzhou,” a bereaved mother surnamed Li said.
Today is...my child's birthday. A year ago, we were having a birthday party at home."
Zhu, bereaved father
“Now we can't get through on his phone. The Dujiangyan police detained two of them. It happened when we were waiting for them to go and buy some fruit at the museum. They took them before they even came back,” Li said.
Officials now say last year's massive Sichuan earthquake left 5,335 schoolchildren dead or missing, releasing their first official tally just days before Tuesday's anniversary.
Many bereaved parents say school buildings were poorly constructed and collapsed too easily when the quake struck, while structures nearby stood firm.
They said the authorities have prevented them from filing lawsuits or staging public demonstrations of anger or mourning since the 8.0-magnitude quake—which left nearly 87,000 people dead or missing.
State media previously said 14,000 schools—half of which collapsed entirely—suffered damage in the quake, while early estimates of the numbers of students and teachers killed were put as high as 9,000.
A bereaved father surnamed Chen answered his cell phone to say he had been taken by police to a hotel in the suburbs of the city, before the line was cut off abruptly.
And a mother surnamed Wang who joined several hundred parents on a march to the Dujiangyan township government last Thursday said most of the parents of quake victims in the town were now under surveillance.
“Most are under house arrest,” she said from a location outside the province.
“We escaped by disappearing to another province beforehand. They are looking for us everywhere.”
“A lot of parents are under restrictions. We can't get through on their phones. The government is trying to persuade some of them to go traveling elsewhere in China.”
An official who answered the phone at the Dujiangyan township government denied the reports.
"How can you say that just because they haven't been seen, that this means they've been arrested? You should ask the Dujiangyan police. How can we tell the Dujiangyan police what to do? They are enforcing the law,” the official said.
“Of course anyone committing an illegal act will be arrested. This has nothing to do with the relatives of victims."
Barred from premises
“They won't let us go there,” a parent of a child killed in the collapse of the Juyuan Middle School in Dujiangyan said Sunday.
“They are sealing off the area now. We can't get in [to make memorial offerings],” the official said.
And in Beichuan county, parents said armed police and plainclothes officers were drafted in ahead of Tuesday's anniversary and had sealed off the area around the Juyuan Middle School, where dozens of children died.
“It's under very tight control right now,” a bereaved mother surnamed Zheng said.
“The armed police got here well in advance [of the anniversary]. There are a lot of plainclothes police too. Most people wouldn't be able to spot them. They are afraid we are going to cause trouble.”
Another bereaved father surnamed Zhu said: “Today is the 10th. It was my child's birthday. A year ago, we were having a birthday party at home.”
”Now, we are mourning my child instead, but we haven't been able to make the offerings. The government won't let us.”
An official who answered the phone at the Beichuan county government offices said: “The parents are saying we won't let them carry out mourning rites? Which parents are saying that? They are allowed to carry out normal mourning activities.”
Original reporting in Mandarin by Qiao Long, and in Cantonese by Hai Lan. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.