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Fear of the unknown


Concern about missing people and aftershocks trouble quake survivors in Sichuan province.


‘‘I haven’t heard from my 13-year-old daughter since the earthquake and I don’t know whether she’s dead or alive,” says Yang Mingyuan.

His face, eerily calm, suggests a disconnection from his emotions.

Yang has left his details with the volunteers at a desk for missing people in a stadium in the Sichuan city of Mianyang, which shelters more than 10,000 people. An estimated 5 million people were made homeless by an earthquake registering 7.8 on the Richter scale on 12 May. Officials expect the death toll to top 80,000.

He’s been searching for his daughter all over, including at a hospital, where a patient with the same name was reportedly being treated. But so far, he’s had no success.

“She’s old enough to know we’re looking for her and to be able to get in touch,” he says.

Hundreds of people every day are trying to get news of missing family members through the network of volunteers, putting up notices and broadcasting messages.

In the gruelling afternoon heat in the stadium, a Red Cross Society of China volunteer rushes to organize transport for a father who, he says, has tracked down his son and wants to go to him as quickly as possible.

Teams of experts from the Chinese Red Cross are training groups of volunteers to carry out psychosocial work among the survivors. Their techniques will include approaches adapted to Chinese culture and customs such as t’ai chi breathing exercises.

“It is normal in a situation like this for people to have feelings that are hard to deal with,” says Amgaa Oyungerel, the health delegate for the International Federation.

“Sometimes people just need someone to talk with and to comfort them and help relieve stress and the fear of the unknown.”

Continuing aftershocks and the threat of floods and landslides increase survivors’ worries.

Red Cross staff and volunteers have been working around the clock to provide basic relief, medical care and shelter. They are backed up by disaster and water and sanitation experts from the International Federation, which has appealed for US$ 92.7 million to support a three-year programme to help about 500,000 people. Efforts will focus on the construction of health centres and schools.

Xiao Wei, 16, has wanted to be a construction engineer since he was a child playing with wooden bricks. After the earthquake, he is even more set on the idea.

“I hope that if all these towns and villages are rebuilt after the earthquake, they can be planned in a different way — with more open spaces and not such tall buildings,” he says as he sits with his family in part of a tent shelter along the highway.

The apartment where Xiao Wei lived with his parents was not completely destroyed but has been declared unsafe to live in. That’s more fortunate than most of the people here, including his aunt, Yang Yunju. Her apartment was destroyed and her daughter, injured in the quake, is being treated in a nearby medical tent, set up by doctors from the Red Cross in neighbouring Hunan province. The 30-person team is one of several Red Cross units that rushed in from other areas of China.

Xiao Wei’s eyes reflect an enormous sense of loss. “I feel sad about my home town and that so many people have died,” he says.


Parents hold portraits of their dead children at a memorial service at a destroyed primary school in the earthquake-hit town of Wufu in Mianzhu county.



Francis Markus
Francis Markus is an International Federation communications officer.



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