Revisiting Sichuan
November 2008

by Jean Chung

Asia was hit by two deadly natural disasters early this year: Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar on May 2, 2008, and 10 days later, the Sichuan earthquake in China. The earthquake that measured 7.9 on the Richter scale shook much of the southwestern province and took almost 70,000 lives.

© Jean Chung/WpN
A man washes a cloth at a rebuilding site outside a refugee camp in Beichuan, China, on Sept 8, 2008. Five months after a 7.9 earthquake, the Chinese people try to rebuild their life and town. Throughout the earthquke-hit areas, many refugee camps were set up and they form a new community. As of July 21, 2008, 69,197 are confirmed dead, including 68,636 in Sichuan province, and 374,176 injured, with 18,222 listed as missing.
I was in Beijing when the earthquake happened. My friends who were also photographers heard about the news and flew to Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan. I followed suit soon after. At that time, the whole area was so chaotic it was very difficult to access some of the hard-hit areas such as Wenchuan and Beichuan; all the roads had been destroyed and the police and military blocked access for security reasons. Some of the photographers took three full days to reach Beichuan from Chengdu either by foot or bicycles. Cracked buildings stood unstably and desperate family members cried for the people who were still trapped inside. Villagers were hauled by military boats and rocks were falling down from the mountains as the military advanced into Beichuan City. I could not stay in Sichuan too long because my visa was expiring.

Four months later, I was back in Beijing again during the Olympic games. After the Olympics I read a news article about orphaned children in Sichuan province waiting for adoption. That article reminded me of the Sichuan earthquake I covered before and wondered what had happened after all these months. What would have happened to displaced people after that? How were the rebuilding efforts being carried out? How about children who lost their parents? I decided to revisit the province again.

© Jean Chung/WpN
Bai Qin, 3, second from left, is being fed by a social worker at Mianyang Baby's Home in Mianyang, Sichuan province, China, on Sept. 1, 2008. Bai, from Beichuan, became orphaned because of the massive earthquake and now stays at an orphanage waiting to be adopted. The deadly Sichuan earthquake on May 12 left 69,197 dead. Among them, 10,000 children are believed to have died, and 2,000 of them were left orphaned. In Sichuan province, 532 children were kept in orphanages and, except for 88 of them, all have been adopted as of Sept. 8, 2008, according to the bureau of civil affairs. But most of them are being cared for by relatives and live new lives.
When I arrived in Chengdu again I felt like people in Sichuan had gone back to their normalcy. Chengdu had not been affected too much from the earthquake. I wanted to know if I could go to Beichuan this time since I could not make it the last time. Surprisingly, there were buses leaving for Beichuan from Mianyang Bus Terminal once every eight minutes (since Chinese like the number "8"), and even with dozens of stops it only took two hours to reach Beichuan! The highways had been repaired and people were commuting between the two cities. I even traveled to Beichuan twice a day. It was amazing.

Along the highway from Mianyang and Beichuan, there were new refugee camps with modern temporary houses lined up. Inside the camps there were police stations, playgrounds, schools and sometimes hospitals. Refugees were able to use communal bathrooms, showers, kitchens and laundry room. Thousands of them found their new homes inside the camps. Some camps had local markets and Internet connections.

© Jean Chung/WpN
Chinese girls study at a refugee camp in Beichuan, Sichuan province, China, on Sept. 5, 2008. The deadly Sichuan earthquake on May 12 left 69,197 dead. Among them, 10,000 children are believed to have died. Most children who survived from the earthquake now live with parents or family members in damaged houses or refugee camps throughout the region. New schools have been set up and children continue their lives in schools and the camps that have become their new playground.
I looked in different refugee camps for the orphans who had lost their parents. In an earlier news report, there had been almost 532 children who lost their parents in the quake and 88 children were waiting to be adopted. It was difficult to find the locations of the 88 children since they were all dispersed throughout the province. I went to the camps directly and looked for them.

Fortunately, I managed to find at least five orphans in different camps. They were all taken care of by relatives and grandparents. Those relatives were not willing to give their nephews and nieces into adoption since they were able to care for them, but for one family, in particular, this was more difficult: a widowed grandfather who had taken in two orphaned grandchildren – brother and sister – had trouble raising them inside the camp on his own. The children were 11-year-old Wang Xi and 5-year-old Wang Hai Yi.

© Jean Chung/WpN
Children play at a school inside a refugee camp in Beichuan, China, Sept 5, 2008. Five months after a massive 7.9 earthquake, the Chinese people try to rebuild their lives and towns. Throughout the earthquake-hit areas many refugee camps were set up, forming new communities.
The Wang family's story was broadcast widely in China and there had been patrons who were willing to give the children monthly stipends in addition to the government aid and one patron will take Wang Hai Yi to Beijing to help continue her education.

Although there were still damaged buildings in Sichuan province, the old city of Beichuan itself was quite untouched since the quake. The earthquake sites were rebuilding rapidly and people who were affected by it were struggling to go on with their lives. Most of all, it was great seeing the orphans living with other family members despite the horrible situations they had to go through.

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© Jean Chung

Jean Chung is an award-winning photographer who has gained international acclaim for her photographic documentation, especially in Afghanistan. Earlier this year, she was honored with the inaugural Pierre and Alexandra Boulat Association Award at the 2008 Visa pour l'Image photo festival in Perpignan, France, for her project documenting the rape of women in Eastern Congo. She currently works as a freelance photographer for the New York-based photo agency World Picture News. After moving back to her native Seoul, South Korea, she has worked in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa since 2004.

Among her major awards are the Grand Prix Care International du Reportage Humanitaire of Visa pour l'Image Photo Festival in Perpignan for her photo story, "Maternal Mortality in Afghanistan: Qamar's Story" [see her August 2007 dispatch in The Digital Journalist:].

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