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.

Peter Ford
Zhou Yi: Hoping to find his parents.
Peter Ford
Relief: A fireman carried a man who had been trapped in his remote village.

Mu Guangchan's mother, a wiry 70-year-old widow who farms corn in the mountains of Sichuan, is a self-reliant sort. So when the May 12 earthquake destroyed her village home she built herself a shelter and sat tight.

Mr. Mu, a migrant worker on a construction site in Beijing, 1,300 miles away, guessed that's what she would do. So he got on a train to go fetch her.

"She's stubborn," Mu said, as he and his mother, after a walk of several hours across mudslides, reached the road that would take them to a relief center. "And there are other old people in her village who won't come down unless their children come to get them."

From the mountains around Beichuan, one of the regions worst affected by the quake that officials said Monday has killed at least 34,073 people, villagers were still arriving at reception points in this devastated southwestern province. Untold numbers of migrant workers across the country, meanwhile, were flooding back to their homes to seek and care for their families.

Not all of them were as successful as Mu. Zhou Yi stood at the edge of this devastated village looking up to where his parents' home had stood. All he saw was a massive wall of earth where the mountain had sheared away.

Indeed, mudslides still pose great risks in the earthquake zone and as of Monday have buried more than 200 relief workers over the past three days, according to Xinhua, China's news agency.

Zhou had traveled in a bus for two days with 45 other Sichuan men employed at the same coal mine in Shaanxi Province where he works, he said. He still hoped his parents might be trapped higher up the mountain – he clutched a white plastic bag full of water and biscuits he had brought for them; but his brother had searched the peaks fruitlessly the day before.

The picturesque mountains where the earthquake struck hardest are largely populated by old people and children today. Sichuan, the third most populous province in China and one of the poorest, has provided a significant percentage of the 120 million migrant workers who have spread out across the country and powered China's economic growth.

Thousands of those old people seem reluctant to come down from the isolated hamlets in which they have lived all their lives, though others were slow to leave home for other reasons.

Chen Dingde, a sprightly 82-year-old, said it had taken him and his 66-year-old wife three days to find a way out of their village, because all the normal paths were blocked by landslides. Eventually, he said, they found a route that brought them to the road here after a 12-hour walk.

Others were too infirm to be able to make the journey on their own. As evening turned to night on Friday, soldiers and firemen arrived here from distant villages with aged peasant farmers tied to their backs or sitting on makeshift palanquins fashioned from wooden chairs lashed to poles that the young men carried on their shoulders.

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."

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."

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