50 km from the epicenter
Sunday, June 1st (Children's Day - the equivalent of every child's birthday, a day when parents celebrate children)
A group has formed outside the ruins of the elementary school. They are parents. Their children are still inside. It is Children's Day.
There is a clothesline of elementary school portraits and candid shots of the children in their favorite clothes. One is a dancer. Her father says:
"My daughter was the best dancer. She was so beautiful. She danced in our town and in neighboring towns. She always wanted to dance. Now she is dead. Look at that building. How could that have stood during an earthquake? Look at these walls. Sand. Look at this steel - how could this have held up a building? It is so flimsy. What do I tell my daughter?"
Above the photos, a banner has been hand-painted. It says:
"To our babies. Mom and Dad love you, we will be with you soon." and "Who will explain this to our children?"
In front, a small alter has been erected. Incense is burning, candles are lit, and handfuls of foods lay strewn across the table. Where one would normally see an alter covered in seeds or fruits, here I see cookies and gummies, the kinds of foods a five or six year old might choose as they head out for a journey.
How do I write about the faces of parents that have gone blank?
How do I write about an anger that is deeper and sharper than any I have ever witnessed?
How do I write about utter despair?
I came to this village with a group of ex-pats called "The Rainbow Project" to celebrate children's day with the displaced children in the refugee camp. We passed out toys, played games, sang songs, danced, and marveled at what fun can be had in the midst of rubble and loss. As the sun got hot and the kids headed back to their homes (tents), a few older girls took my by the hand and asked if our group would like to see the their school. I nodded, and we began walking down the empty road together. They pointed out three story buildings that had turned into one story buildings. The crumbled building where one of the girls (Wang Shan)'s mother used to sell shoes. A house where a soldier had died trying to retrieve the belongings of another girl's grandmother.
The first school we reached was the high school. One girl bravely walked in and began giving a guided tour of the destruction (This is where the students sleep. Many were taking an afternoon nap when the earthquake hit, and they died. This is the teacher's building, it is fine. This is the classroom building. 80 students died here...). I looked over to see Wang Shan crying - she had been next door, but her friends had been some of the 80 in the fallen building.
We walked on to the elementary school, where up to 200 children had died. On the way, we passed army tanks full of supplies, ghost-buster-like figures in full body suits spraying chemical cocktails onto ruins, and very little else. Two women passed us, sobbing uncontrollably. Parents. We reached the elementary school, and found the vigil spilling over the front lawn. They sat silently and intensely, commemorating Children's Day with their eyes on the ruins of their children's school.