May 19th, 2008
12:05 PM ET

China: Children searching for their parents

View a slideshow of Selena Hsu's photos
View a slideshow of Selena Hsu's photos

Editor's note
: Selena Hsu is a former AC360° staffer, now in China as media fellow for the Henry Luce Foundation and working for CCTV – China Central Television.

Selena Hsu

The earthquake in Sichuan has highlighted the particularly stark losses this tragedy has inflicted on the Chinese nuclear family. It's hard to convey just how close parents and their precious only child are here; they spend so much of their daily lives together in such small, shared spaces.

This quake struck when children were at school and parents were out working, and some of the most desperate emotions we are seeing now come from an incredible breach of the family unit.

One of the recurring cries from the parents, acknowledged by officials, is the shoddy construction of schools here, which has led to a disproportionately high number of young deaths – almost 7000 classrooms destroyed. In the town of Juyuan in Dujiangyan county, the middle school has completely collapsed, while apartment buildings right next door are still standing, with even the windows intact.

While I was there yesterday, a group of distraught parents fought their way into the roped off school grounds, demanding to find an official, a principal – anyone – to answer their desperate questions about how so many hundreds of their "wawas," or dolls, as they call their children here, could have been allowed to die at their desks.

Their bitter complaints are a common refrain here: They say they're happy with how the central government has responded so generously and quickly to their plight, but furious at the greed of local officials who they say regularly siphoned money out of school building contracts. The mood was volatile as the crowd swung back and forth suddenly between raw anger and even rawer grief.

Nearby in Mianyang County, more than 30,000 refugees are housed at Juizhou Stadium – the largest shelter in the region. Hundreds of makeshift tents circle the stadium, but the interior is reserved for 1000+ child survivors who have walked down from the gorges of Beichuan and beyond, and who have yet to find their parents.

For now there is no telling how long the children will be kept inside. A representative for the provincial government says that it will wait for two months before officially designating these children as orphans, and already more than a thousand people have signed up to be potential adoptive parents. We talked to a woman waiting to sign up who had lost her home in the quake. Her own child was grown, she said; she wanted to open her arms to another. Chinese families adopting Chinese children is very rare, but this disaster is exposing the naked need among parents to have something to love.

Victims are still pouring into the stadium from the mountainside; on Friday, six children straggled into camp, having walked for two days down from their mountainside village. They were in a state of shock: wide-eyed, silent, and refusing to eat. The children were immediately surrounded by a crush of 40 adults clamoring to touch them, to feed them. The loss of young life in any tragedy is unbearable. Here in Sichuan province, the recurring cry among the bereaved, the volunteers, the separated, for the thousands of children dead and for those who have made it through alive, is "Make way for the wawas!"

See more of Selena Hsu's photos

Filed under: China Earthquake
soundoff (9 Responses)
  1. JJ_Orlando

    These are such good loving people. Where is Bush in sending or offering more aid to help?

    May 19, 2008 at 11:40 pm |
  2. Kathy, Chicago

    Parents of China don't love their children any less than we do. I am waiting, not so patiently, for my son to get home from college. he is due any moment, and only home for 2 weeks. What would I do if I got that call that something had happened? I keep track of bad weather in areas close to my children. How would we feel if our children died because of faulty construction? Havn't we seen that in hurricane areas? If faulty construction was responsible for all of those children's deaths, than those who built that school are responsible. My thoughts and prayers are with those families.

    May 19, 2008 at 8:32 pm |
  3. Sabrina in Los Angeles

    OH that is way too tragic and sad.

    What will become of these orphans?

    May 19, 2008 at 7:32 pm |
  4. Tammy, Berwick, LA

    I have been trained professionally to be objective and not get emotionally involved in situtations. Between this story and the losses in Burma, I'd have to be a professional and personal ice floe not to feel sadness for these massive losses. Losing a school means losing the youth of a community. How horrible. I am glad so many are coming to aid these children without parents and parents without children. My prayers are with them as they deal with this tragedy.

    May 19, 2008 at 4:57 pm |


    May 19, 2008 at 4:01 pm |
  6. lpfoong, Malaysia

    The anguish and shock on the faces of the survivors are truly heart-wrenching and the devastation is incomprehensible because watching the events through our small screens cannot describe the totality of the damage and the full scale of the situation.
    So many lives lost and for those greedy few, who chose to line their deep pockets over the safety of people's lives; I wonder where they are now? What are they thinking and can they look at themselves in the mirror?
    Amidst all these, it's good to see and know that the people of China are giving all the help that they can and providing the children and all those in need not only in provisions but also kindness and love, the nourishment of the soul.
    Thank you for all your effort in ensuring the rest of the world know their stories.

    May 19, 2008 at 2:54 pm |
  7. Joseph Kowalski, North Huntingdon, PA

    In all of these horrible natural disasters, it is the children who suffer most. So many have lost their lives in these tragedies, and so many others who survived, lost their family and are now alone in this world.

    It would be a good idea if the nations effected by these tragedies attempted to place the displaced children into families who have lost their children.

    Nothing can ever replace the loss of even a single life, but a program like this could begin the healing for all those effected.

    May 19, 2008 at 2:39 pm |
  8. Annie Kate

    The pictures from the quake are hard to look at especially the ones from the schools. So many children dead who should have survived if the schools had been built right. The grief of the parents and the emptiness each child's death created is probably beyond words I hope the local officials who siphoned off the money to be used for the construction of good schools are prosecuted and held accountable. I have wondered in watching the coverage if China might relent on its one child per family rule for those families who lost their child in the earthquake.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    May 19, 2008 at 2:10 pm |
  9. Cindy

    The devastation in China is horrific. Most of all seeing the schools and the dead bodies of the students still in them and no one can remove them. Then seeing the parents there waiting for any sign of their child is so extremely sad. I hope that someone is held accountable for the shoddy way those schools were built.

    I am glad that there is a place that is trying to house and take care of the many orphans as I am sure there will be many more showing up. Hopefully they can be adopted out and find peace with what happened.

    May 19, 2008 at 12:12 pm |