Both the middle school and the primary school in Hongbai Town
June 13th, 2008
We got a call today telling us that, for security reasons, our Torch leg is now scheduled a day earlier. I will be running in Wanzhou, Chongqing, on Sunday, June 15 - Father’s Day. I will still run for the children, especially those of Sichuan. Somehow, we will manage to bring the children there. I hope it doesn’t change again!
I just arrived in Chongqing from Sichuan. Yesterday was the one month anniversary of the earthquake. We traveled several hours to a hard-hit mountain town in Beichuan, Hongbaizhen, and worked with children and volunteer teachers. I have added many photos to our website.
A couple of weeks earlier, we braved the rock-strewn roads and broken bridges of Hongbaizhen to deliver relief goods to the children. The whole town was in shock. As painful as yesterday’s visit was, we began to see signs that the town will slowly begin to come back to life. Our communications director, Patricia King gave me this moving report: An 8-year-old boy stands in front of the pile of rubble that had once been his school and explains that he was the last student to have been pulled out alive. When the earth shook, he was one of the obedient children sitting with arms crossed at their desks—some naughty boys were still outside, safe on the playground. For ten frantic minutes, trapped between a piece of concrete and brick on the second floor, he waited. His cries couldn’t be heard over the wailing adults, but finally when the crowd outside the collapsing school quieted down they heard him and came to rescue him with their bare hands.
In the first days after the quake, he couldn’t return to the pile of debris that had once been his three-storey school, but with the help of a volunteer teacher from his tent school, he has visited the site several times and now is not afraid when he comes back. Today, at 2:28, exactly one month after his world shattered, the boy and another child from the tent school placed their hands on their hearts, then bowed three times, saying goodbye to their friends who died at the Hongbaizhen Primary School. Finally these brave survivors vowed: “We will live our lives as best we can.”
In Hongbaizhen, an isolated mountain town where it took three days for the Air Force to make it on foot past a collapsed bridge while the cries of children trapped under heavy rubble grew weaker and weaker and then stopped forever, the pain is palpable. But one month after the earthquake children and adults are also expressing their grief, working to find a way to cope with their pain, and taking the first steps to rebuilding lives. Sitting under a tree outside a tent school only 100 yards from the collapsed Hongbaizhen Middle School, it took only minutes before a group of middle school girls, two with their heads bent into their arms and one sitting up straight, weeping and sobbing, opened their hearts to Vancouver psychologist Dan Zhang and University of Minnesota psychologist Pinian Chang, both of whom were also once students in China. A 14-year-old twin, who aches for her one-minute-younger sister. She escaped the building, but her sister didn’t. Finally her sister was pulled out of the rubble, but with no medical care available, her family listened helpless as she spoke her last words: “I hurt. I hurt. I am so tired. I think I am dying.” Now her grieving sister refuses to go to any school with more than one storey—she tried a middle school with two stories and dropped out after two agonizing days. Still she is trying to take comfort from “Invisible Wings,” the song she and her sister loved and sang together. “I know I’ve always had a pair of invisible wings that take me flying and give me hope.”
Two girls mourning their brother, a 10th grader, and a nimble athlete as well as a good student, who made it out of the building. But he went back to rescue three crying girls only to die when another piece of the building gave way. One of his sisters is tormented by regrets—why did she brush off her brother, who wanted to talk to her a few days before the earthquake when she wasn’t in the mood? Both sisters know that their brother died a hero, but they miss their older brother and cry for him as an adult volunteer encircles them in a hug to try to ease the pain. Meanwhile inside a white tent decorated with balloons and tinsel, a crowd of volunteers hungry for help sit at shiny wooden desks salvaged from the collapsed middle school. Executive Director Jenny Bowen tells them that Half the Sky’s greatest contribution to helping in Sichuan will be to provide training for caregivers. She urges them to identify adults in the local community who can be trained to provide consistent, long-term help for the children long after the last volunteers have gone back to their homes. When she tells them that Half the Sky is committed to working in Sichuan for “at least five years,” they burst into applause. It soon becomes clear why the applause is so heartfelt. These volunteers, some recently arrived and some soon to go back home to their own families, have bonded closely with the children and they know the children will need support for a long time. One wears a beautiful shell bracelet made for her by one of the girls who has become like a little sister. Another favored volunteer’s arms, face, and t-shirt have been decorated by playful children using colored markers. Both the volunteers and the children who cling to them are finding it difficult to even conceive of their leaving. Psychologist Marleen Wong and psychiatric social worker Suh Chen Hsiao of the National Center for Trauma & Bereavement tell the volunteers they have given the children a great gift by providing a school and a routine for the children. Research shows that children who go back to school soon after a disaster fare better than children who have no routine for a long period of time. They also praise the volunteers for developing such strong bonds with the children and then urge those who are leaving to find a new local volunteer they trust to work together with the children before they leave. They also urge the volunteers themselves to get together after they leave Hongzbaizhen to talk through their feelings among peers who understand what it is to try to provide comfort to traumatized children living in a tent school surrounded by rubble and soldiers wearing white masks spreading disinfectant on the site where so many of their friends died.
The volunteers, some with tears in their eyes, explain why they are worried for the children and feel helpless because they cannot help them more. They worry about a 5-year-old girl with a scar on her back from being buried by debris who screams whenever she sees a collapsed building, an unavoidable sight in this mostly leveled town. A thirteen year old boy, the last to be pulled out of the middle school, refuses to come to the tent school so close to where he was trapped. A six year-old boy whose two brothers died, draws a picture with cherries because his brothers liked cherries, but this volunteer thinks he is too calm, toomatter-of-fact: “I am so worried about him. I ache for him.” Wong tells them they have done well. “Do not underestimate how much good kindness can do.” She recommends that they continue to reach out to the 13-year-old afraid to go to school. Visit him at home, offer him some water, bring him some notes from his friends. For the 5-year-old, try to have her draw or tell why she is screaming and help her learn to breathe deeply when she is afraid so that slowly, slowly the screams become less frequent and finally go away. And for the too-calm child, sometimes children have a delayed reaction, which is why long-term help is socrucial: “We have to wait for the child.”
For the Hongbaizhen parents heartbroken by the loss of their children, there was no delayed reaction—they have expressed their grief since the day of the earthquake and they still show it in their eyes that well up with tears even when they express nascent hope for a future life. On this one month anniversary one tiny mom, her hair flecked with gray, shows visitors cell phone photos of the two children she lost. She lowers her arms to illustrate the unthinkable, the collapse of her daughters’ school.She walks slowly away, but not without first thanking Half the Sky and everyone else who has come to help. It is that support, she says, that has recently made it possible for her to start to at least imagine a future for herself without her children. And a short climb up one of the mountains that made Hongbaizhen renowned for its beauty before it became renowned for its suffering, parents are still trying to comfort their children, who died four weeks ago.
At the four-tiered hillside cemetery with hundreds of children’s freshly made graves, parents have laid things that their children once loved—a pink backpack, wrapped candy, spicy Sichuanese snacks, a big teddy bear and a stuffed monkey. A weeping dad injured in the quake, his arm still in a sling, burns paper money and incense and apologizes to his child. “I am so sorry. This is the first time I could come. I hope you don’t mind,” while his wife wails the lament of every parent who has wished that they could have saved the life of the child even at the cost of their own: “Mommy is here for you. How could you go before us? Please wait for us.”
At a tent school on the site of the collapsed middle school
At a tent school, children struggle to resume a normal routine