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Sichuan Earthquake

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Sichuan Earthquake
Staying at their posts
Farewell to childhood
Helping neighbors
Growing up overnight
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At 2:28 on the afternoon of May 12, 2008, a magnitude-8 earthquake devastated Sichuan Province, a mountainous region in southwestern China. Eighty thousand people were killed or reported missing, 300,000 were injured, and five million people lost their homes. Aid immediately poured into the disaster areas. Rescue workers helped save lives trapped in the rubble; humanitarian organizations sent in relief supplies and medical aid. Although hit hard by the disaster, the survivors are not alone on the road to recovery.

Shifang mourns
Wenchuan, at the epicenter of the great quake, is surrounded by mountains and hills. The earthquake damaged the terrain and caused mudslides to block the roads, restricting access to disaster zones and hampering relief efforts.

Shifang, in Deyang Prefecture, was one of the hardest hit areas, with more than 3,700 people killed and 31,000 people injured. In the village of Hongbai, located the farthest from central Shifang, 90 percent of the buildings collapsed in the tremor.

On the third day after the disaster, the road leading to Hongbai was finally cleared, and rescue workers brought in heavy-duty machinery to free survivors from debris. Two more days later, a rescue team from Singapore arrived. Although the chance of finding any survivors was slim, it would still be a great comfort to those who had survived the tremor if the bodies of their loved ones could be found and properly buried.

Tzu Chi volunteers inspected conditions in the Hongbai area. They saw collapsed mountains amidst lush patches of greenery. They saw people who had lost their homes lingering among the ruins.

The Tzu Chi team also visited Luoshui Township, especially Luocheng Village, where 95 percent of the buildings lay in rubble. Local residents had taken up temporary refuge in canvas tents. Luocheng Village has a population of over 40,000 people. Volunteers conducted free clinics and provided hot meals there. Rice distributions and construction of prefabricated classrooms and houses were also being planned.

Staying at their posts
At a square next to a temple in Shifang, several canvas tents were put up to serve as makeshift wards for the Shifang Women and Children's Hospital. The hospital had been destroyed in the tremor, but staff members continued to provide services. In the week after the quake, doctors delivered 12 babies on long tables set up in the better tents.

Sickbeds had to be saved for patients, so at night the medical staff could only rest on chairs. Although they suffered from insufficient sleep and food, and although their strength was overtaxed, they stayed at their posts.

The earthquake injured nearly 300,000 people. The situation of the Shifang Women and Children's Hospital staff could be viewed as typical for all the 48,000-plus medical personnel serving on the front lines.

Farewell to childhood
The earthquake toppled over 7,000 schools in Sichuan Province. In Shifang alone, 22 middle and elementary schools collapsed, burying close to a thousand teachers and students under rubble.

When the earthquake hit, the school bell at Hongbai Central Elementary School had just struck. The school had over 200 teachers and students, half of whom lost their lives to the disaster. Even for those students who survived, the earthquake cast a gloom over their childhood.

A pile of schoolbags that had lost their owners lay in forlorn silence in the playground.

Helping neighbors
Though piping hot noodle soup, seasoned porridge, and steamed rice are the most ordinary staple of a Chinese diet, downing a few helpings at this time and under these circumstances gave the tent residents a much appreciated sense of comfort and warmth.

There were 13,900 buildings in Jinshan Township in Loujiang, Deyang, and the quake destroyed 90 percent of them. Survivors moved in with relatives or into one of the seven public shelters which the local government had set up. Tzu Chi volunteers put up a service center at the largest of those shelters, which accommodated more than 600 people. Volunteers also worked with medical personnel to establish first-aid stations, led and played group games with children, and mobilized residents to work in improvised kitchens.

Each morning, participants brought cleavers, pots and pans, cutting boards, or whatever kitchen utensils they still had to the kitchen sites and got busy preparing the next meals. Some farmers even donated their own vegetables to the shelter. One of them said, "You folks came all the way from Taiwan to help us. We locals must at least do what we can to help ourselves."

The quake survivors were unable to cook for several days after the temblor. They had to eat food supplied by the government or charity organizations. Though life sustaining, emergency food tended to be dry and cold--not particularly palatable after a few repeats. At a time like this, hot, freshly cooked meals became almost like gourmet food. Tzu Chi volunteers even gave out reusable eating utensils to residents to help cut down on the consumption of disposable utensils.

Growing up overnight
Weiming, 6, and his brother Xiaohao, a junior high school student, used to live with their father in Beichuan while their mother worked in Shanghai, about 1,300 miles to the east. After the quake, the brothers walked with their uncle for two days before they finally reached a public shelter in Jinshan. One week had passed since the quake and there was still no news about their father.

Tzu Chi volunteers were making their rounds in the tent city, offering what help they could, when they came across a languid Xiaohao. "I miss my daddy," Xiaohao managed to say, haltingly. A volunteer held him tight and said, "Child, go ahead and cry if you feel like it." That totally unraveled what little composure Xiaohao had mustered. "I'm worried about my dad! I'm scared of losing him."

No sooner had Xiaohao started crying than Weiming joined him. The volunteers offered the wailing young boys solace. "Let's pray together that your dad is well. Be strong. Your mother will be back to see you in a few days."

May 19-21, 2008 were national days of mourning for quake victims. Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may soon afflict many of the survivors, emergency response personnel, and others working at the disaster scenes. The PTSD will be one of the key elements that must be properly handled in the near future.

Tzu Chi Disaster Relief Team:
Huang Zi-ling, Zhao Bai-xun, Chen Juan-yuan, Qiu De-huang, Wu Hong, Liao Ming-ren, and Xu Tong-yi
Translated by Tang Yau-yang and Wu Hsiao-ting
Photographs by Hsiao Yiu-hwa
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