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After quake, China's migrant workers rush home

Laborers from across the country have returned to their native Sichuan Province, where many elderly Chinese have refused to leave devastated – and still at risk – villages.

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They had left behind those who refused to leave. "We have 1,000 men in the mountains looking for people and trying to convince them to come down" said one soldier who asked not to be identified. "Sometimes it's a problem."

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It could be, the soldier suggested, that the farmers have livestock that they do not want to leave uncared for, though one man solved that problem by driving his herd of wayward pigs through the gathering dusk on Friday as he headed for the valley.

It might also be because some "do not want to be a burden on society, and they know that they will have to go back some time," explained Chen Shitai, a doctor who set out into the mountains on Saturday morning in a grubby white coat, with a sack of medical supplies on his shoulder, to seek out people in need.

His wife and children have chosen to stay in their village, he said, because they can live for a while on maize porridge and dried or salted meat. "There are lots of old people who just don't want to leave the places they come from," the doctor added.

Other mountain residents are afraid of what might happen to their villages if they did abandon them. "We can look after ourselves and we want to protect our homes from thieves" said Wong Xijun, an old man in an olive green Mao cap who has chosen to stay in his village, Jingu.

Most of Mr. Wong's neighbors have left Jingu, where only six of the village's 70 houses are still intact. Among those remaining is Dong Hongfa, now living with his wife and aged mother in a makeshift tent he has built in his yard because his home, with a large crack across the front wall, is too dangerous to enter.

Drawing water from a nearby well and cooking on an open fire for lack of electricity, Mr. Dong said he felt happier than he would be in the city of Jiangyou, a 90-minute drive away, where the government is encouraging local earthquake victims to assemble.

"Our shelter is safe, and the government is sending us things to eat," he said, since his village lies only a 20-minute walk from the main road.

Wong won't leave because his ageing mother refuses to go. "It is safe here, and the air is good," she said. "If I go down to the valley, I'm afraid I won't be able to cope with the air."

Certainly there is not much to tempt them in Jiangyou, where tens of thousands of homeless people are living cheek by jowl on sidewalks in cramped and unsanitary shelters rigged up from tarpaulins, with no better idea of their future than those who stayed at home.

"We can't go home and we don't know what to do" said Chen De'an, who rushed back from his job in an iron-ore mine in Shaanxi last Wednesday, as soon as he could get a bus ticket. His father had been killed, he discovered, but he found his younger sister in Jiangyou, and now he sits with her on some blankets she salvaged from her wrecked home, waiting.

"Nobody has told us what will happen next," he said. "All we can do is rely on the government."