BEICHUAN, China - Mourners crowded ruins in southwest China on Tuesday to mark one year since an earthquake shattered the region, while President Hu Jintao called reconstruction efforts a testament to national strength.
In Sichuan province, where the earthquake rippled out from Wenchuan County on May 12 last year, survivors and relatives filed into devastated towns to mourn loved ones among the more than 80,000 people killed.
Hu laid a wreath at a memorial in Yingxiu, a town near the epicenter wiped out by the quake, and called the vast effort to rescue survivors and rebuild the region a vindication of ruling Communist Party policy.
During the quake rescue and reconstruction, the whole country has strived with one heart, Hu, somber and low-voiced, said in front of a stone carving of a clock showing the time -- 2:28 p.m. local time -- when the quake struck.
The constant improvement of our national strength since reform and opening up began is the firm material foundation for our victory over the massive Wenchuan earthquake disaster, he said in the speech shown live on Chinese television.
In the weeks preceding the anniversary, official media have cast the quake as a patriotic milestone demonstrating the government's strength and commitment to people's welfare.
But for many families of the dead, the anniversary was above all a painful personal re-encounter with the frantic scenes of 12 months ago, when bewildered residents and ill-equipped soldiers struggled to save those trapped in homes, offices and schools.
In Beichuan, a valley town wiped out by the quake and nowadays usually empty and sealed off by guards, locals and camera-snapping visitors poured in after police opened the gates.
INCENSE AND ASHES
Many mourning residents lit incense and ritual paper money intended to comfort the dead. Ashes swirled in the blustery air.
I feel the earthquake isn't over yet. Every time I see something about it, I feel like crying, said Zhou Ya, a 20-year-old woman who lost a brother and sister in Beichuan, as she lit incense and ritual money in its ruins.
For some survivors, the anniversary also drew bitter words about the government's reluctance to openly investigate buildings that collapsed in the quake, especially schools that fell while nearby offices and apartments stayed intact.
In Hanwang, a factory town ruined by the quake, mourners gathered at a mass grave on a nearby hill they said held thousands of victims, including workers and schoolchildren killed when their aged workshops and classrooms collapsed.
Parents of children killed in the Dongqi Middle School in Hanwang, like bereaved parents in many parts of the quake area, said neglect and poor standards contributed to the deaths.
That fury stoked protests in the wake of the quake. Ahead of the anniversary, razed schools and outspoken parents have been under guard by police and local officials.
The Hanwang school had been officially classified as dangerously dilapidated years before the quake, but wrangling over funds delayed plans to move the classrooms, according to parents and Chinese newspaper reports from last year.
We came to remember our son. But this was not just a natural disaster. He died from people's actions, said Fu Xingneng, who said he believed his son Fu Cheng was buried in the mass grave.
Officials prevented any memorial gathering on the morning of the anniversary at Juyuan, a town where hundreds of children died in the local middle school, three parents told Reuters by phone.
I feel there's too much control, said one of them, Zhou Liangping. We just wanted to gather and remember our babies.