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Elderly Chinese cling to ruins

The Chinese government says that most of the 12 million people who lost their homes in the May 12 earthquake 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.
Image: Temporary relief tents located inside a sports stadium in earthquake-hit Beichuan
Temporary relief tents in a sports stadium in earthquake-hit Beichuan, Sichuan province on Sunday. Reuters
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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."

While Xi talked, her daughters-in-law served their first hot meal in two days -- rice, smoked meat and greens. Xi offered that she might go. But not today. Maybe tomorrow.

Elsewhere, a man could be seen working in shifts with two relatives to carry his mother over the mountain on a makeshift chair strapped to his back. His cotton shoes were muddy and torn from the rocks strewn across the paths. His mother had broken her hip in the earthquake.

Another man, Dai En Xiang, 46, started walking at 3 a.m. to bring his 72-year-old mother across the mountain. She was able to walk with his help most of the way, but he began to carry her about 4 p.m. on the final descent, a slick and steep mud track dangerous to navigate on legs shaky from the miles already trekked.

The large number of these remote villages is taxing Chinese officials' ability to organize a coherent relief plan. The amount of assistance Chaping residents got from rescue workers varied widely over the past three days.

On Saturday, when an estimated 2,000 residents evacuated, teams of armed police were stationed across the front side of the mountain, helping carry those who were struggling and hefting large bamboo baskets full of refugees' possessions, oftentimes packed with food. One policeman said he tried to persuade an elderly villager to drop his heavy load of smoked meat, assuring him there was plenty of food available in the refugee camps.

Volunteers also joined in the effort. Zhou Mengqing, 54, a local farmer, carried a 78-year-old woman across the mountain. "Some old people don't have sons or daughters left to bring them down," he said.

Refugees were met that day by a small team of medical volunteers from the Red Cross and a local hospital, who gave them water, puffed rice bars and vials of traditional Chinese medicine to ease fever. The volunteers sprayed the refugees with disinfectant and administered basic medical care before loading them onto buses to a nearby camp.

After an emergency evacuation warning on Saturday night -- rain was predicted, and reports circulated that a nearby dam was about to burst -- there were few armed police visible on the mountain on Sunday, and the Red Cross contingent was gone. Fewer than a dozen volunteer workers from a local hospital staffed two small tents at the mountain base. Periodically trucks came by to drop off water and snack food.

By Monday morning, residents were pretty much left to themselves. Periodic tremors shook the ground and frayed nerves, physical reminders of the earth's power to destroy.

"There was a big rain on Saturday," Ye said. "We were all horrified. Many people left after that."

Ye remained behind with his mother, waiting for his brother-in-law to return on Monday after escorting the rest of the family over the pass. Ye prepared meals of food scavenged from the remains of neighbors' houses and boiled water from a nearby well to drink. When his brother-in-law, Chen, returned on Monday, he was finally able to persuade his mother to go, saying he and Ye would take turns carrying her over the mountain and assuring her the path was clear and safe. She pulled a blue jacket from the crate and told her son to pack the smoked meat to take along.

It could take weeks, if not months, to repair the roads into town, residents say. Then would come rebuilding the town itself, which could require razing the entire area. No building looked untouched by the quake.

The official death toll on Monday was only 59 here, but the whole city still lay in tatters, rubble and rock piles untouched. Officials did not know what the conditions were in surrounding villages. In the afternoon, about 300 soldiers marched over the mountain with shovels and face masks to begin the cleanup.

Researcher Liu Liu contributed to this report.