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Losing Sleep

May 20, 2008

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Raul Vasquez for Mercy Corps  </span>
    It was another restless night for earthquake survivors; thousands slept on already-crowded city streets in fear of aftershocks. Photo: Raul Vasquez for Mercy Corps
  • 
  <span class="field-credit">
    Raul Vasquez for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Portella (left) and Guo Xin (center) talk with survivors amid the wreckage. Photo: Raul Vasquez for Mercy Corps

Last night the Chinese government issued a warning of a 6- to 7-magnitude aftershock. The streets of Chengdu filled up like a giant, panicked block party. People dragged out chairs, tents and mattresses to sleep outside of buildings they feared would collapse.

I'll admit that I joined the panic and slept alternately on the street, in my bed and under my desk. My colleague Guo Xin slept in the hotel's first-floor restaurant area. The aftershock inevitably came (they're constant) but it was much smaller than expected.

I don't function well without sleep so I was slow and irritable all day.

We headed out early to the city of Deyang in Shifang County to meet with our partner, the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation (CFPA), in their temporary disaster relief office. We found their office to be more "temporary" than we had expected. With the aftershock warning, CFPA staff were working outside and sleeping in their cars.

I talked to Wu Peng, who is usually the vice director of CFPA's monitoring and research department and is now supporting the Sichuan relief efforts. He explained that CFPA, with Mercy Corps' support, has been providing short-term relief like food, water and blankets to displaced people in hard-hit areas.

While CFPA remains active and interested in distribution, particularly of certain food (rice, vegetable oil) and clothes that the government is not yet providing, their focus has shifted to rebuilding communities. They are particularly keen to adopt select communities and provide interim housing for one to two years until people can be permanently resettled. CFPA is also getting involved in rebuilding schools and helping orphans.

I asked Wu Peng how much sleep he's gotten in the past week, and that made him laugh. He admitted to about one hour a night, with the exception of the blissful five hours he got in his car last night.

We left Deyang to go to nearby Jiandi Township, which has been heavily damaged by the quake. We passed streets of one- or two-story homes and storefronts that appear to have been stomped upon by a giant on a rampage.

We went to a high school where about 60 students were killed. A tearful middle-aged man on the street stopped to talk to us. "We're so sad to lose the children," he told us. "This shouldn't happen to the children."

The next township over is Longju, the site of another school tragedy. This time we visited an elementary school that collapsed and killed 60 young students.

I wandered among the wreckage, identifying the objects of children: a knapsack here, a notebook there, a small pink shoe a few feet away. Parents standing nearby told their all-too-familiar stories in a tone that can only be described as wailing - a deep, mournful crying like I've never heard in my life.

The Longju school will be rebuilt with the support of CFPA. I was there for the announcement of the 3 million RMB gift (a little under $500,000) that will make rebuilding possible.

Even in such a bleak scene, there is hope for the children of this devastated area. Mercy Corps is honored to be involved.