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Rebuilding the lives of earthquake-affected children in China

© UNICEF/HQ08-0626/Dean
Students at Danjing Shan Central Primary School wait for class to start in Pengzhou County, China. UNICEF will be donating a water purification system to the temporary school.

By Xin Xu

LONGNAN PREFECTURE, China, 20 June 2008 – Bending over a tiny desk, seven-year-old Zhang Ziwen did his homework in a tent near the Bailongjiang River.

“I used to live in the town with my family. But now we can’t live in our house anymore,” Zhang said.

Before the earthquake struck the region in May, Zhang attended all his classes from Monday to Friday. But since the quake, he has been one of the 518,000 students who have limited classes taught in tents or pre-fabricated classrooms in Longnan Prefecture.

‘I just wish to go to school’

“I am still afraid of the aftershocks. There is no electricity in the tent at night and I am bit by lots of mosquitoes,” he said. “I just wish to go to school every day, as usual.”

Located about 200 km away from the epicentre of the earthquake in Sichuan province, Longnan Prefecture is the worst-hit region of Gansu province. Over 2,960 schools in the prefecture were damaged in the earthquake.

However, since the province’s schools send children home each day for a midday break, students were returning for the afternoon session when the earthquake struck, resulting fewer casualties than in Sichuan.

The majority of the houses in the area are unsafe for habitation, and almost all of the children are living with their families in makeshift shelters or on open ground along the river bank.

© UNICEF/HQ08-0627/Dean
UNICEF Water and Sanitation Specialist Yang Zhenbo meets students and staff at Danjing Shan Central Primary School in Pengzhou County.

Life in tents

In the past week, 1.8 million displaced persons in Longnan Prefecture have been living in rough conditions with heavy rains and soaring summer temperatures. In Wudu District, no one can live above the second floor because existing cracks in the walls are enlarging every day due to frequent aftershocks.

A block away from the river bank, a woman was digging a ditch to channel rainwater out of her makeshift tent.

“It rained overnight yesterday,” she explained. “Rains filtered though our tent, and our shoes just floated away. Our quilts and beddings were soaked. We held our children in our arms and stayed up all night, waiting for the day to break.

“I want nothing more than a rain-proof tent,” she added.

More help needed in schools

Although school has resumed in many temporary classrooms, studying is difficult.

“We find our students less focused on study because it is too hot in the afternoon,” said the Principal of Wudu Chengguan Middle School, Zhang Haiping. “The playground is being used to accommodate the prefabricated classrooms, so sports class and breaks are cancelled.”

Sanitation has also become a problem as more students return to school.

“The toilet has been severely damaged and could collapse at any moment in the aftershocks. But we have no other choice but continue to use it,” said the Principal of Houqu Primary School, Mao Zhongrui.

Children’s lives changed

At Bikou Town Primary School, at least two students were killed when the building collapsed. There are 1,330 students enrolled, and classes have resumed in prefabricated classrooms.

“The children’s lives have changed so dramatically since the earthquake,” a fifth-grade English teacher said. “All of the children now live in tents. About 50 per cent of our students have stopped going to school.”




20 June 2008:
UNICEF correspondent Chris Niles reports on how UNICEF is helping to get quake-affected children back to school in China.
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