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Olympics bring joy to earthquake victims

The Baltimore Sun

DUJIANGYAN, China - In a narrow alleyway, family and friends enjoyed a special dinner of fish, duck and pork, as they watched last night's Olympic opening ceremony on television. They'd been waiting years for this night, but truth be told, cast against a brutally trying few months, the celebration also serves as a welcome distraction.

Ke Hong, clutching a bottle of wine tightly, had been enjoying the night enough for all of China. His Olympic spirit, in fact, might result in a headache in the morning.

As an area patrolman, Ke works here in Dujiangyan. His family, however, has lived for years in a village near the epicenter of a horrendous earthquake that devastated this region just three months ago. Eight of Ke's relatives died. Like all of his neighbors here, he lost his home and has been residing the past couple of months in a makeshift refugee camp.

"China is so strong to host the Olympic Games," he said, as the opening ceremony flickered on a nearby television, waving the half-empty bottle of wine in the air. "Now I can see the future for China and for myself! We have the confidence to rebuild our home."

In Beijing, fireworks filled the sky and revelry filled the streets. But the party surrounding last night's Olympic opening ceremony was hardly limited to the nation's capital city. More than 900 miles away, in Sichuan province, an area that's wallowed in grief and grown accustomed to loss found reason to rejoice - even if the kickoff to these Games did highlight disparity.

Since the May 12 earthquake, $10 billion has been devoted to relief and reconstruction efforts, a figure that pales in comparison to the money China has spent preparing for the Olympics over the course of the past decade. When the medals are handed out and the dust settles, the price tag on these Games will likely exceed $44 billion.

The rising toll of damage related to the earthquake is staggering: about 70,000 dead, 375,000 injured, more than 5 million left homeless and as many as 5,000 children left orphaned.

Tales of valor, sorrow, survival and loss have threaded through conversations in the area. They talk of a Dujiangyan middle school that collapsed, killing 50 children. And of a man from outside of Mianyang who was buried under rubble for an entire week but survived by eating toilet paper and drinking his own urine. Another man tied his dead wife to his back with a rope and rode his scooter across Sichuan to find a respectable place to bury her.

While the entire world casts its eyes on Beijing these next 16 days, Dujiangyan is worth remembering. Flags hang from light poles across town, the white ones reading "Let's rebuild our homeland" and the red, "We'll wish the Beijing Olympics good luck."

Not far from the eastern entrance into town, a hospital, seemingly post-apocalyptic, stands barren. The windows and doors of the building are all gone. Every room has been gutted, and the floors are littered with rubble and trash, shoes without mates and even a stuffed teddy bear.

In front, blue and green tents offer temporary medical services. Sitting at an old wooden table, Ty Quiong Yin, a 72-year-old grandmother who lost her home in the disaster, lists her ailments for Dr. Wang Zhuang. Wang was working on the third floor when China began to shake.

"When the earthquake happened, the ground went up and down, up and down," he said, "and then from left to right. The stairway broke and collapsed. I tried to rescue patients out of here." He said the hospital was evacuated and no one was seriously hurt.

Not far away, Pu Yang Road, once a busy commercial street, has been reduced to just a patchwork of functioning life. Many tall buildings have been destroyed, some offering a hint of what formerly existed and others wiped out completely. Many of the businesses are operating out of tents on the sidewalk, giving much of the city the feel of an open-air flea market.

Just off the road, Gou Xue Yin's family has an apartment on the second floor, though they've been living in a blue tent. Yesterday they planned to watch the opening ceremony from the apartment and then immediately retreat for the night in the tent below.

"We're scared," said Gou. "What if the earthquake happens again?"

In the urban area of the city, there are 14 "resettlement" villages that house refugees, estimated at more than 50,000 for Dujiangyan alone. Xingfu Jiayuan - which roughly translates to "Happiness Homeland" - is the second largest, housing about 7,000 people in 2,200 units.

It's a makeshift community of prefabricated homes. Each consists of a single room, about 12-by-12 feet. The walls are thin, made of white plastic with blue trim. They were lined up in long rows on a vacant lot and constructed in only five days in May. Residents who lost their homes live here free of charge.

With television antennas extending from bamboo poles atop many buildings, the entire community was outfitted this week with cable. The area's director, Yang Zhong Ming, wanted everyone to have access to the Olympic Games, yet yesterday morning, a portion of Xingfu Jiayuan was stuck with snowy pictures. But Lin Jing He, the cable guy, showed up in the afternoon.

In nearby Chengdu - like most of the country's major cities - there's a giant clock that's been counting down the days, minutes and seconds until the opening ceremony. As Lin screwed a white cable into the back of a television in the commons room, an Olympic news report began flashing on the screen, and the countdown clock in Chengdu would have read 4 hours, 4 minutes.

Yang, the area director, knows profound loss - his grandson died in the quake - but speaks mostly of rebirth. "There's much excitement about the Olympics," he said.

Four hours later, that would become very evident. As the sun set on Dujiangyan, that excitement began to stir into a near-frenzy. News of the Games was broadcast on outdoor speakers throughout the resettlement area. A half-hour before the opening ceremony began, row upon row of small homes had their televisions tuned, and people without TVs began filling the empty seats in the commons areas to watch together. "We are so excited," said Peng Ding Hua, 59. "We skipped supper."

About a dozen others were seated around Peng and his wife, and a projector broadcasting the ceremony was aimed at a white bed sheet that covered the entirety of one wall.

Across the courtyard was another commons area where more than three dozen gathered, their collective gaze affixed to a single TV set. In the middle of the room sat 58-year-old Yang Zhong Kang, fidgeting and clapping. In May, the earthquake took her home and nearly her life. Yang was in another building, one that stood four stories tall, when she felt the rumbling.

"I dashed out of the building, and I just narrowly escaped," she said. "It was just like a movie."

And now she lives here. She used the word "fortunate" to describe herself and all of China to be hosting these Games. At 8:08 p.m., the Opening Ceremony officially began in Beijing. The national flag was walked through the national stadium in Beijing. More than 900 miles away, a roomful of refugees rose from their seats, staring ahead in a silent awe.

They'd spent three months feeling sorrow; these next couple of weeks are reserved for joy, they said.

"Even the earthquake cannot stop the people from enjoying these Olympics," Yang said.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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Sun reporters blog from Beijing at baltimoresun.com/olympicsblog

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