Day three in China with Save the Children

Discover the reality behind the headlines in China

Kate Redman, media officer for Save the Children, reports exclusively for on the reality behind the headlines in China…

Just back from Mianyang – a city not far from Beichuan – the city that was all but crumbled to the ground. The drive took us another couple of hours past paddy field after paddy field, couples up to their knees in water pulling up their crops, men flattening the reeds with huge flat paddles and children playing dangerously on the side of motorways. You’d think nothing had happened, though I know from being here just a few days, that they’ll all have been affected in some way – even if just by the fear of a second earthquake that’s forced them out of their houses and into the fields and tents. As buildings started cropping up interspersed between the paddy fields, the further out we went, the more they showed signs of damage. Dodgy garages tottering on one side, houses with half a roof, temples less a turrett and office buildings with windows hanging on by just a hinge.

In Mianyang, the city, however, the damage was far more extensive. Last week, official figures put the numbers of dead in this one city at 7,000 with over 18,500 buried. Now the rescue operation is complete there, the total number of dead must have climbed dramatically. Nearing the city, a convoy of ambulances from a private hospital in Beijing went screaming past us. The tents on the side of the road seemed to multiply, turning from make-shift plastic shelters made out of the government’s free blue, white and red striped plastic sheeting, into the more solid 4 walled Napoleonic tents I’d seen yesterday.

We went straight to the city’s football stadium where 30,000 were slumped either in tents on the grass outside or sleeping on the floor. The stadium had lots of gym equipment inside which the families were using to their advantage. Children were playing on the skiing machines. Families were sleeping on the running machines – one conveyor belt per person, or pushed together to make a double bed. Happier sights saw a man playing the clarinet for people around him, young children running around with abandon leaping across sleeping people and temporary schools set up for children where, when I hovered to find out more, I was pulled into games of ‘What are your biggest dreams?’ and drawing exercises – hidden methods of distracting children from their nightmares and shock. But the other sounds and sights were of a woman having a fit on the floor, a teenage child clinging onto her mother like a baby, legs in plaster, stiches and bandages, signs of deteriorating sanitation, children playing on their own and families hovering by doorways as though waiting to run if needed.

Save the Children now estimates that 3 million children have been forced to move from their homes in this quake. That’s the same as 1 in 4 of all children in the UK. It’s more than in any other disaster since 2001 when there was an even larger earthquake in Gujurat.

Children I met in Mianyang’s stadium told me about their experiences – one child was hardly speaking, another one year old baby, who one might expect not to have stomached the same stress, was having fits in his sleep and refusing to stop clinging onto his father’s arm. A seven year old who said she was even quite enjoying sleeping here in the stadium with her whole family and that she could now sleep lying next to a friend she’d found from her school then whispered to me that she was still having nightmares when it was dark. And a father told me his 3-year-old son had woken from his sleep at school to see the ceiling falling down on him and now refuses to go inside any buildings.

Most of these people had walked with their children either trailing along beside them or holding them in their arms. They had come from Beichuan – a two-day walk over mountains and hilltops.

‘I was so tired and hungry,’ one girl told me. ‘Especially when we had to walk to the high parts on the mountain. For two days, I didn’t eat or drink anything.’ The ever-climbing numbers of those dead and affected mean Save the Children is now scaling up over here. From initial estimates of a response that would need 1 milllion US $, we now estimate needing 5 million US $. Our work will be setting up centres for these children in areas like this in Mianyang where they can go to play, meet other children their age, start learning again, and give their parents the chance to start rebuilding their lives. Because it’s unsure how long these children will be in these temporary shelters, we have to make sure they have the possibility of taking time out and being led in a professional and structured way through their feelings. The effects of this earthquake are far more long-term than initial expectations. Initial responses are just the tip of the iceberg to return any sense of normality back into these children’s lives.

Check back next week for more updates from Kate, and CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s report.

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