"I don't want to go," cried children inside the bus. "Hang in there," others screamed from outside.
Last month, Kobe's massive earthquake shattered the little society of the Meisei-Ryo shelter for displaced children here, sending the youngsters to private homes, a school and other shelters across the city.
Most had grown up without parents, and their only family was the staff and other children at the city-run shelter, founded after World War II. They had already lost their birth families to tragic circumstances--death, divorce, poverty. Some were just abandoned.
With the crushing earthquake, their lives were disrupted again.
On Jan. 17, the morning the disaster struck, the shelter's 47 children were awakened by a teacher screaming, "There's an earthquake!" Since they had a monthly quake drill, they knew what to do; everyone safely fled the premises and survived. The shelter itself was smashed by collapsing adjacent houses.
Thirty-eight children were evacuated to Hyogo High School and stayed in a classroom; others were taken into private homes. At the high school, the children managed to laugh and help each other even though they had little to eat, could not bathe and had to sleep on cold, hard floors. Being together helped them overcome the trauma.
But two weeks later, officials were forced to divide the children among different shelters in less damaged parts of Kobe. Grief once again overwhelmed them. Some siblings were separated from each other.
"Maybe three years, then we can be together again," staff member Akemi Ohmori, 29, told the children. Until funding is found and the Meisei-Ryo shelter can be rebuilt, the children will have to readjust to new environments.
Children at other shelters, such as Shinsei-Juku, suffered water shortages and other hardships. But the scattering of Meisei-Ryo's children had a particular poignancy.
"If it's too hard, you have to let me know. I will come get you!" one boy from Meisei-Ryo screamed at his friends as a bus drove them away to another site.
As they covered their tears, the children inside the bus were painfully aware of their fate. They left their "family" quietly whimpering: "I'll miss you."