Viviane Lucia Fluck, a German college student studying at China's Sichuan University in September 2006, had to put her studies on hold after the earthquake struck last year. Like many people who went through the devastating quake, she can still vividly remember experiencing the earthquake in her apartment in Chengdu.
"A friend of mine and I were listing to music, when suddenly the couch started shaking and drawers opened up. It took a minute or so until we realised that this had nothing to do with the neighbouring building that was being demolished at the time but that it was a heavy earthquake. I still have strong memories that it was difficult to close the doors but my friend just told me there is no need to close the door but that 'we just have to get out of here!'" Viviane, who goes by Lucy, recalls.
People were running onto the street, most of them just wearing pyjamas or even underwear, because people in Sichuan had a siesta in the afternoon. The two girls did not feel the quake while out on the street, but they could see houses, cars and trees shake
After 20 minutes they returned to their apartment and didn't leave it for awhile, even though there were severe aftershocks. They spent the first two nights on the lawn in front of the foreign student's dorm. At first, no one really knew about the extent of the casualties but after calling various friends in different countries and listening to Chinese radio, the sheer magnitude of the quake soon became clear.
When she learned how devastating the quake was, Lucy made the decision to help. "I was so near so it was clear for me to help. For more than a week the university was closed and during this time a lot of students volunteered,” Lucy remembers. After the university opened again, most of them returned to classes, but Lucy stayed behind. She only had two more courses to complete and wouldn’t lose that many credit points, so she quit her studies and part-time job and continued to help. "I had the sense that I was needed and could do something," she explains.
One day after the quake she became the contact person for the volunteers. Her first task was taking a taxi and visiting Dujiangyan to find out what people there needed most. The city looked like several bombs had exploded. "It was horrible. Rescue teams were working overtime, dead bodies were lying all over the place wrapped up in bed sheets, and except for the military, ambulances and some reporters, the city was completely empty. I was talking to different people, and the most touching chat I had was with a mother who told me how her 8 year-old son had died in her arms."
All this, Lucy explained, was very moving, creating haunting stories and imagery that has stayed with her. "The smell of the corpses especially those still lying under the ruins is something I surely won't forget in my whole life. But nevertheless I think I was not traumatised. I didn't have nightmares, even though the stories I heard and still hear today are really touching. But I can handle this," she says. One reason for coping with the tragedy, she is sure, was the fact that she was able to help people and thus improve their situation, at least a little bit.
"As a student I don't have that much money and helping directly on site was the best way for me to contribute something. And the more I was helping, the more it became clear that my work really helped people and this of course was a huge motivation to go on."
At the beginning Lucy organized and coordinated the volunteer work and helped bring relief supplies into the region. Her work continues to this day, as she recently became the project manager of Sichuan Quake Relief (SQR).
SQR is an organization founded just after the quake by some foreigners and Chinese in Chengdu. They collected money in Chengdu immediately after the quake but later decided to go to villages and do their own projects. One of these projects was bringing 50,000 bottles of water to some remote villages, including places where the government or bigger non-governmental organizations (NGOs) could only get to later or couldn't get to at all. Altogether, there are about 40 volunteers and eight people on staff still working and organising projects and keeping their website updated (www.sichuan-quake-relief.org).
SQR receives donations from individuals, universities, and companies, but also from diplomatic agencies in China, who give donations in cash or in other ways. The organization also has good connections with the British Chamber of Commerce and the British consulate. "Because of this," Lucy explains, "we were honoured to have Prince Andrew meet with me while he was visiting SQR."
Not only has she met people like Prince Andrew or those working for international organisations, she has also met ordinary people in the region who she "deeply admires".
"Although we are only a small NGO and we could only help a few people in some areas, we were welcomed very warmly," she says.
In the early days of SQR, Lucy was working completely for free but afterwards she was getting some financial support through certain donations. Nevertheless, she spent most of her own money that she saved. After returning to Germany in October 2008 she started working two part-time jobs and used the money she earned to further assist the victims.
Lucy says it has all been worth it because it has been a life changing experience. She was not only able to help people but also learned a lot about China and herself. To this day, she is still impressed how often volunteers ask to help SQR. Their great willingness to help has been very memorable for her.
And what has she learned about herself? With a smile she replies, "When I can do something worthwhile like the work I did for SQR, I'm okay with very little sleep and [now] I can work all day long, even on weekends."