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Synopsis

Sichuan, China. In the aftermath of the massive earthquake that rocked this central region of China, several communities are in mourning for the children they lost. At Fuxin Primary School, where 127 students died, families place framed photographs of dead boys and girls in a makeshift memorial next to the rubble, burning incense and symbolic paper currency to honor them. A boy survivor cries, remembering his lost classmates. A father tells us how his son was the top student in four subjects. A mother wipes the glass on her portrait inside the memorial, explaining, "I have to clean your face before I leave."

At Hanwang Primary School, 317 students died. Standing amidst the ruins, a father still hasn't found his daughter: "After ten days I haven't seen her face." Another man explains that local leaders said "we weren't hit hard, we can handle ourselves." Young voices that cried out from under slabs of concrete are silent now, as heavy machinery tread lightly on the ruins to avoid dismembering bodies. Back at Fuxin, parents remember hearing how the buildings were unsafe, but nothing was done. "Who inspected and built the building?" asks one. "Where is the government?" In a field behind their home, the parents of a victim show pictures of their son, and visit the mound of soil where they were forced to bury him. "We want justice to prevent future tragedies," says the mother. "This is a lesson of blood." Even more children - 438 - died at Xinjian Primary School. A woman shows off a class photo with some 30 or 40 students. All but one student and the teacher died. Parents here rail about the school building's "shoddy construction," complaining that the mortar and concrete did not meet standards. Likewise, in Hongbai Schools, where 430 children died, questions about the quality of building construction are raised over the sound of sobs. China has a strict one-child policy, and most of these parents lost their only child.

In Mianzu City, protesters vent their complaints with a director from the Board of Education. "Where did the school money go?" asks a man. Next to the wreckage we see an intact warehouse building that survived the quake; it used to be a school, and students would have been safe here. Instead, a parent shows us an official letter of compensation: $317 for each dead child. A father plays us a song his daughter recorded on his cell phone. He and his wife show us the forest in which they buried their child, along with many others. Back at Fuxin, parents examine the fallen building's bricks, dumbfounded by the lack of cement on them. "If children are the flowers of our country, is this where you plant them?" asks a mother. The lack of response from local officials has caused parents here to begin a 70-mile march to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan. They start off full of resolve, jostling a Party Secretary and breaking through a line of police officers. Chants accusing officials of negligence and wrongful deaths abound. One woman recounts how, after being denied use of an overcrowded crematorium, she was forced to personally carry the body of her daughter home, first by motorcycle and then (when the bike stalled) by foot.

Eventually, parents are pressured to board buses to a nearby government office in the regional capital of Deyang. After officials promise to visit the Fuxin school the next day, parents return home to await government inspection. Inspectors and engineers from the Architecture Institute finally arrive, as promised, with some admitting that the construction of the school was faulty. Eventually, officials shoo away most of the onlookers and camera crews, explaining that "Starting tomorrow, only a select group of parents can be here." Eventually, the government bans gatherings of more than three parents at school sites, warning villagers that protesting is unpatriotic. One protesting mother is berated by other villagers, who remind her that the Communist Party has done a lot of good in the wake of the disaster, and who lecture her for speaking with foreign filmmakers. She returns to her farming, which had been neglected in her grief, and laments how she'd hoped her daughter would be cultured and highly educated. It turns out that compensation is tied to a pledge to "obey the law and maintain social order." With the implication that the protests will cease, parents are offered $8,800 per dead child. Later, 58 parents from Fuxin Primary School file a suit seeking additional damages and a public apology. Their lawsuit is rejected.

CREDITS: Directed by Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill; Produced by Jon Alpert, Peter Kwong, Michelle Mi, Matthew O'Neill & Ming Xia; Edited by Adam Barton; Editor & Colorist: John Custodio; Cinematography & Audio: Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill. For HBO: supervising producer, Jacqueline Glover; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.

Woman crying holding missing child photo

China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province

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