Some 20 Britons and Americans who spent their childhood as prisoners of Japan's military in an internment camp in eastern China gathered there to mark the 60th anniversary of their liberation at the end of World War II.
Many cried as they entered the compound, a former Presbyterian missionary school that held some 1,500 people from December 1941 until their release on Aug. 17, 1945.
Chinese officials welcomed the former inmates with songs, speeches, the release of hundreds of pigeons and the opening of a new museum set in the compound on eastern China's Shandong peninsula. Some 3,000 schoolchildren joined them in watching as fireworks exploded above the compound, releasing tiny parachutes in memory of the American soldiers who arrived by parachute.
The memorial is part of elaborate efforts by Beijing to commemorate the end of the war and remind China's people and the world of Japanese wartime atrocities. Elsewhere, the government has opened museum exhibits about Japanese massacres of civilians and state media are filled with stories of wartime suffering.
The government keeps alive anti-Japanese sentiment with frequent mention of wartime atrocities in state media and schoolbooks.
Historic antipathy is especially strong lately as Beijing and Tokyo argue over Japan's campaign for a permanent U.N. Security Council seat and control of oil and gas resources in disputed waters.
Though some of the former internees were among the Westerners expelled from China after the 1949 revolution, they have been welcomed back by the communist government as fellow victims of Japanese aggression.
"Most of those internees had lived in China for years before December 1941 and many bonded with China," said Yang Daqing, a history professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
On Wednesday, the stage at the ceremony in the internment camp was decked with banners emblazoned with the slogan "Peace, Friendship and Joint Development."
"It's good to come back to such a big celebration," said Joyce Bradbury, 77, a British writer whose family had spent several generations as merchants in China. Bradbury, who now lives in Sydney, Australia, was 13 when she entered the camp.
Bradbury described seeing Japanese soldiers grab a Chinese child seemingly at random, chain him with a dog collar, beat him with sticks and force orange peel into his mouth.
The soldiers warned the Western children that the same would happen to them if they didn't behave, she said.
"They were very cruel," Bradbury said.
The camp in Weifang was made up of European-style brick buildings surrounded by fields and trees. The surrounding Chinese village was tiny half a century ago but has expanded to some 8.6 million people.
The local government has converted part of the facility into a museum of the internment camp, with books, photos, clothing and other items donated by its survivors.
A waterfall, several pagodas and a sculpture depicting the liberation of the camp surround buildings that once housed Japanese soldiers and their prisoners.
"Several months ago this was a deserted place with lots of garbage," said Hu Guizhu, a 50-year-old junior high school teacher in Weifang.
"We hope many foreign friends will come here to visit, to talk business. This is the aim," Hu said.
Many former internees echoed China's view that Japan has failed to do enough to atone for wartime brutalities, saying they felt great sympathy for the Chinese.
"The Japanese won't admit to the atrocities done to the Chinese people," Bradbury said. "Japan never admitted doing any wrong. It was denial, denial."
Former inmate Douglas Sadler, a 77-year-old Briton, said the Western prisoners at the Weifang camp were sheltered from the worst atrocities of the war and learned only later of the millions of Chinese killed by Japanese forces.
"We weren't mistreated," said Sadler, whose parents were missionaries in China. "It might have been the safest place for us."