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Aftershocks

China | World attention turns to Beijing but Sichuan quake victims struggle toward recovery

Issue: "Northern light," Sept. 20, 2008

CHENGDU, China-Months have passed since rescuers pulled survivors from the rubble in Sichuan Province, and since survivors watched as parents retrieved their dead children from the jagged remains of their schools. By the time the Olympics started, the tales of nightmarish sights and sounds of Sichuan's deadly May earthquake had subsided even within the country, as the government subtly guided everyone's attention toward events in Beijing.

But for the residents of Sichuan, an agriculture-rich region often referred to as the "Province of Abundance," since May it has become the province of agony: At least 70,000 people died in the quake, and as of last month over 18,000 are still listed as missing. In addition, 5 million people lost their homes.

At a refugee shelter south of the epicenter, one young man and his family members are today-nearly four months after the quake-doing what so many other victims are doing: pondering a grim future. There is small chance the government will build them a new home, and if it did, it wouldn't be in their original hometown, a beautiful, small com-munity nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas. "Maybe we can't go back forever," he said. "The government decided that the area was not safe for living."

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The Sichuan man, who asked not to be named for fear of speaking without the government's permission, recalled how his family members struggled to find each other after the quake. His mother, he said, was working in a furniture factory near the epicenter when the quake hit at 2:30 in the afternoon. She narrowly escaped, "but one of her colleagues was not so fortunate; her corpse was just about three or four meters from the gate of the factory," he said. "And one of my grandfather's brothers died."

While buildings collapsed throughout hundreds of square miles in Sichuan, the worst scenes of destruction were off-limits to foreigners this summer. Government workers have heaped the destruction into piles and hauled it away. Now the aftermath is more internal, less visible.

"There's the physical rebuilding, but there's also the emotional rebuilding," said Ron Drisner, a Canadian counselor in Beijing who trains volunteers to assist earthquake victims in the south Sichuan city of Chengdu. Drisner made a visit to Sichuan in June. "A lot of people are resilient, and will bounce back-probably a vast majority will bounce back, but there will still be that group who will be having a hard time."

Helping those victims will probably require long-term commitments from the thousands of volunteer counselors in China who have stepped forward to encourage their countrymen. "It's a matter of building up some kind of resources around them, so they feel they're cared for and supported emotionally. That's where you start," Drisner said.

Drisner trained 100 lay Chinese in one weekend to assist in counseling, and he knows a family who owned a restaurant but shut it down, volunteered with the Red Cross, and now serve meals in a displaced camp. "We're relying on the Chinese people we're trying to train and build up. They're the ones who'll be able to help. When it comes to counseling, it's all relationships, so you want to focus on the long term. That's how people get better. Going in and out [by foreigners] will just isolate them more."

But volunteers from overseas can still be used and are still waiting for their chance to help. Paul Wu, a founding member of Architects Without Borders in Seattle, said that two dozen designers and engineers associated with his nonprofit organization are awaiting a green light from Beijing. "Right after the earthquake, we organized a team," said Wu. "We are poised to go, and we have members wanting to spend a year over there. But we have yet to hear from them-perhaps they've been preoccupied with the Olympics or their own efforts."

It goes without saying that thousands of buildings will need to be replaced in Sichuan, and Wu said that's where his group aims to help by doing structural evaluations and designing new facilities. But it remains to be seen how much more external assistance the Chinese government will accept. "Our offer is still out there," he said.

On a muggy afternoon in mid-August, only a handful of children ran through a labyrinth of metal refugee dormitories erected by soldiers about two hours north of Chengdu.

Aftershocks continue on a near-daily basis beneath the various refugee camps scattered throughout the province. "When you're eating, the ground shakes. When you're sleeping, the ground shakes," said the young Chinese man, adding that he had never felt an earthquake before May. "Several days ago, I was in a hospital in the city, on the fifth floor, when the earth shook. I was so scared."

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