17,921 still 'missing' 2 years after quake

BEIJING — Wednesday marks the second anniversary of China's worst disaster in a generation, the Sichuan earthquake — and a painful milestone for the families of the 17,921 people still recorded as missing.

Chinese law says relatives can apply two years after a disaster to have their loved ones registered among the dead. Not many are expected to do so. It's a choice that offers some minor financial compensation and a mix of closure and fresh pain.

"It will be like exposing their scars another time," said Gao Guizi, who runs the Sichuan 512 Relief Service Center, which helps coordinate the aid groups working with quake survivors.

Some mental health workers say the families of the missing carry a more difficult burden than those of the dead.

"They still have feelings that their loved ones could come back," said Hai Lan, a Red Cross mental health crisis expert. Her team is the only one to have stayed in the quake-hit region in southwest China over the past two years. "Emotionally, it's harder to deal with. The people who know for sure, it's much more easy."


As families come forward, the official death toll — 68,712 as of the last count a year ago — will climb as the claims are verified. The provincial government has said it will take a year after relatives apply for such deaths to become official.

Sichuan officials are expected to update the number of dead and missing at a press conference Wednesday.

One well-known writer who wandered the region interviewing quake survivors, Liao Yiwu, is among those in Sichuan who worry that the number of missing is higher than the official count.

"The floating population," he said, referring to migrant workers whose families live elsewhere in China and might not have reported them as missing after the quake.

The compensation for a death in the earthquake is just 5,000 yuan ($730) from the central government plus an equal or smaller amount from the local government. For many in a rapidly growing China, the amount is almost token.

Zhang Xinbao, a legal professor at Renmin University who has written about compensation issues in the earthquake, predicts families will be in no hurry to seek an official determination of death.

"Think of the trouble and bitterness they will have to go through," he said.

Nor is the government in a rush to shift the missing into the column of the dead, Zhang said. With the passage of time, the focus is on reconstruction, and many survivors are looking to the future.


"I'm not able to speak on behalf of the government, but declaring death is not a priority when they're making public policy, nor is it urgent," Zhang said.

For those with missing relatives, there is no right or wrong decision Wednesday, said Marlene Lee, a clinical psychologist in Singapore who spent a month in Sichuan after the quake as a volunteer with Doctors Without Borders.

She recalled a man who saw boulders come down the shaking mountainside and crush the construction site where his wife was working. He couldn't dig her out, but he knew she was there. He was able to start moving on, she said.

"The fact there is a huge number of similar losses is one factor for people to make sense of what happened," Lee said. "I do have to say I think the people are very, very resilient, focused on helping each other and making sense of things."

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