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."
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."
Drisner sees with some victims post-traumatic stress disorder setting in after the shock wears off, while other victims "start getting better-they get on with their life, get a job or start rebuilding," he said. The Sichuan man said that despite the upheaval and daily shakes, he is starting to think about taking classes: "Right after the earthquake, I felt very sad, but right now, it is OK. It is time to start."
-Tom Pfingsten is a reporter for the North County Times in Fallbrook, Calif.
Charitable and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) found themselves shut out of Olympic festivities when China's government decided last spring to restrict all private groups' activities in Beijing. But for David Bolt, the 27-year-old founder of California-based Bring Me Hope, being shut out of the main event was an opportunity to serve Chinese orphans whom many officials wish didn't exist.
Bolt has organized summer camps in China since 2005, when his family began a ministry with 28 Chinese orphans. This summer Bring Me Hope brought 350 orphans from government orphanages to camps where they could swim, play games, and be loved: "The purpose of camp is to take kids who have been rejected, hurt, and abandoned, look them in the eyes and say, 'You have value. You are loved,'" Bolt said.
Orphans are paired with young Chinese translators and foreign volunteers, who range from 16-year-olds from California to a 70-year-old Australian woman. Many of the orphans are considered unadoptable. Some have conditions like cerebral palsy and Down syndrome; others suffer from undiagnosed problems, physical deformities, or mental retardation. In almost every case, the children were abandoned by Chinese parents who normally rely on offspring to take care of them in their old age. With China's one-child policy, the only hope of retirement is often to rear a child who can become a provider.
Toward the end of each week of camp, Bolt said volunteers are encouraged to coax stories out of the children. The results are often difficult to hear. One girl described being beaten as a toddler, leaving her with disabilities that actually resemble cerebral palsy. A boy said he still remembers his parent's last words: "Wait here, and I'll come back for you."
Bolt always planned to hold this year's camps in Beijing, hoping to draw attention to the plight of these orphans in the Olympics-charged atmosphere. But its Beijing site was commandeered to make room for 20,000 Chinese soldiers providing security during the Olympics. And with government restrictions on outside activities, the camps had to move to remote cities like Nanchang and Zhengzhou. In one workers were effectively under "camp arrest," unable to leave the site throughout their visit. The greatest frustration for counselors, however, were government restrictions that prohibit sharing the gospel. "You can't share the gospel with words, and you have to completely rely on actions," said Canadian volunteer Janet Elgie.
Despite the obstacles, Bolt said the 2008 camp sessions were a success: The number of volunteers doubled, and orphanages allowed more disabled and special-needs children to come than in previous years-a sign of growing trust by government officials. And when the camps were over, a small group of volunteers won permission to treat five orphans to a night of track and field in Beijing's Olympic stadium.