After China's quake, disarray for kids

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

Peter Ford
Joy: Young quake survivors in Mianzhu play at a day-care center in a tent city.
Peter Ford
Survivor: Huang Yuyu, who was rescued from a Mianzhu school, has been quiet and withdrawn.

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

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.

"Most volunteers know nothing about psychology and things are chaotic. Some just keep asking children about their experiences, which is awful," she says. "The child psychology situation in general is not good. We lack resources."

Children 'are a very easy target'

Meanwhile, with the process of registering refugees still haphazard, the authorities are in no position to provide proper protection for children, especially those who have lost their parents.

"Some places are well organized but others are still in chaos, with young girls and small kids wandering around," frets one foreign expert in children's issues who asked not to be identified. "They are a very easy target for different kinds of abuse, including trafficking."

There have been several reports of such trafficking in recent days.

The living conditions of the children among the estimated 5 million people who have been made homeless vary widely: most are in tents with their families, orphans and boarding school students have been housed in universities, and some are camping in stadiums. Some are attending classes run by volunteers in tents, most are not. Nowhere have regular schools reopened.

Laughter and balloons in a tent city

Among the most fortunate tots on Sunday were those at the Youcheng day-care center, a fenced-in collection of prefabricated buildings and semipermanent tents erected outside Mianzhu on what was a wheat field just a week ago by the China Social Entrepreneur Foundation, based in Beijing.

"Our aim is to provide a safe place for kids," says Ma Wanli, the group's deputy secretary general who oversaw the center's construction. "Very few of their needs are being met, and they can't be met while they are living in those shelters. We have to get them out of their dreadful conditions and into a good environment."

Mr. Ma envisages a mother-and-child center and day-care facilities for about 500 preschool children. On Sunday it was decked with balloons and flags and loud with squeals of laughter as children from the surrounding tent city played with volunteers, their mothers looking on.

"If he could just forget what happened in the disaster and be happy again, that would be great," says Xiao Xinqing as she watches her son play. "I hope this can give him back his happy childhood."

The Youcheng center is a rare bright spot, however. Most children are languishing in hot, cramped tents with little to do and only their harassed parents to care for them. "With the government still focusing on resettling victims it has not had the time nor the energy to organize and coordinate psychological help for kids," explains Shi Zhanbiao, a psychologist from the China Academy of Sciences who is volunteering in refugee camps.

This lack of coordination could continue to plague the authorities as they struggle to resettle millions of earthquake victims in the coming months, warns Mr. Wanli. "In emergencies you need horizontal coordination, but the government works according to orders coming from above," he points out. "Local government has done a good job so far, but its old system doesn't work in these circumstances, and they haven't set up a new one yet."

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