Elderly Chinese Cling to Ruins

In Rubble of Mountain Towns, Residents Resist Going to Camps

By Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 21, 2008

CHAPING, China -- To reach this shattered, deserted mountain town, Chen Tong Quan hiked for six hours the other day, his third trip back since the earthquake to convince his mother-in-law that it was time to go.

Chen's only way here was on foot, over a 5,900-foot mountain, an arduous climb made treacherous by frequent aftershocks and rock slides.

Despite his efforts, Chen's 73-year-old mother-in-law still did not want to leave. "I'm too old! I'm afraid I won't make it," she pleaded, standing near a wooden crate covered with a strip of cardboard where she had collected whatever she could salvage from her ravaged home: a few articles of clothing, some tissue paper, an umbrella, a scythe.

"She wants us to leave enough food and drink and then come back every two months to check on her," said her son, Ye Ning Gui, 40. "She hasn't left these mountains in 10 years."

Scenes like this are playing out in dozens of remote mountain towns like Chaping, which lies 70 miles north of Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province. Those able to walk streamed out first, after last week's rains stopped and the mud began to dry on narrow paths. Now, villagers are joining army and police units trudging back into the mountains to bring out the injured and elderly, many of whom are refusing to budge.

About 12 million people lost their homes in the 7.9-magnitude quake May 12, according to official estimates. The Chinese government, which has not issued an order to evacuate remote towns devastated by the quake, said Tuesday that most homeless will have to stay in tent cities or public buildings for the foreseeable future. The uncertainty has encouraged many elderly to stay put even as whole towns empty out.

Here in what was once a community of 9,000, the only sounds on the main street this week were the snarls of stray dogs, the grunts of abandoned pigs foraging for food, the groans from the few cracked buildings that remain standing, and the rush of river water that residents believe is now poisoned by death. Occasionally, there was a dull roar of stones careering down sheer cliffs. There was no electricity, no cellphone signal. Smoke hung in the air from the still-smoldering pit where bodies dug out from the wreckage were being cremated.

Most rescue workers, who first arrived three days after the quake, left after helping evacuate the majority of the residents in Chaping, in Beichuan county. The few helicopters that landed here to deliver supplies and airlift out about 90 heavy casualties moved on to other missions. A small contingent of government officials was living in tents at the town center; on Monday, the visitors were beginning to organize the first house-to-house searches in surrounding villages, to find the dead and encourage the living to move to government-organized camps.

Sometimes, it's up to the children to persuade their parents to leave.

Xi Yin Zhen, 68, lives in the mountains of Wanfu village above Chaping with her husband. Their two daughters-in-law have tried almost everything to get them to go.

"I tell them the mountains are going to fall down," said Wang Ting Fen, 38. " 'You have to go,' I said. 'I saw the mountains move together in the earthquake, the mountain pass disappeared. The same thing is going to happen to Chaping.' "

"We still have rice," Xi said. "We will stay. The mountains won't fall."

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