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After China's quake, disarray for kids

Authorities are still tallying how many children survived or were orphaned.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 2, 2008

Joy: Young quake survivors in Mianzhu play at a day-care center in a tent city.

Peter Ford

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Wufu, China

As they do every year on Children's Day, parents of this village went to the park in nearby Mianzhu on Sunday.

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But this year the straggling group had no mischievous offspring in tow. Instead, each carried a framed photo of the child they had lost in the May 12 earthquake.

In a tent city a few miles away, preschoolers celebrated in more joyful fashion, playing on slides at a new day-care center.

The plight of the quake's youngest victims has drawn attention because of the tragic way thousands of schoolchildren died at their desks.

As the focus shifts to the survivors, the picture is one of disorganization and confusion: Nobody knows how many children are living in makeshift refugee camps, how many need treatment to help them overcome trauma, or how many orphans the earthquake left, officials say.

"There are a lot of things we don't know," says the spokesman for the Sichuan provincial education bureau, who identified himself only as Mr. Zeng. "It is difficult to do the statistics because we are still registering victims" of the earthquake, whose confirmed death toll is so far 69,000 people, with 19,000 missing.

Compounding the confusion, say international relief workers, is a lack of organization now that the initial rescue and relief work is over.

"Our biggest concern is that there is not a lot of coordination" between government agencies or between government and private groups, says Kirsten Di Martino, head of psychosocial support for the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) in China.

"Everyone is going in and doing things. It's a bit of a circus at the moment," she adds.

That circus, however, has left a great many children outside the tent.

In Wufu, where 129 children died at Fuxin No. 2 elementary school, the local government has promised an investigation into whether the school was shoddily built.

Nobody, however, has yet come to the village to offer help to the 180 or so children who survived and who are now living with their grief.

One of them, a boy named Huang Yuyu who was rescued after spending three hours buried in the rubble of his school, says he does not want to talk to any psychologist because "I am not scared anymore."

His vacant look and his deeply withdrawn manner, however, belie his words, and his mother believes he needs counseling.

"He has changed," says Wang Fang. "He used to be a boy with a very kind heart, but now he is indifferent. He doesn't communicate with us at all.

"I think I should seek help," she adds. "I don't want him to live in the shadow of this for the rest of his life. But I don't know where to go."

Most of the child survivors will not need any special help, says Ms. Di Martino. From past disasters "we know that 95 percent of kids are naturally resilient, and when they are in a group with their peers they will probably recover quite naturally if they have someone who knows basically what to do."

The problem, explains Fan Juan, a child psychologist with the Shanghai Mental Health Center who is now in the Sichuan capital, Chengdu, training volunteers in the basics of counseling, is that there are still not enough people who do know what to do.