Chinese villagers prefer to go home, even if it’s in ruins

Copyright The International Herald Tribune
By Howard W. French
Published: May 27, 2008
SHENXI, China: Since returning to this mountain village a few days after fleeing from the earthquake that devastated this region of Sichuan Province, Xiong Fuquan has made two or three daily round trips to the nearest town for supplies.
The earthquake two weeks ago destroyed the road to his small hamlet, so he has walked, tightrope-fashion, over the roof beams of collapsed houses, and skirted the freshly sheared faces of mountainsides that have rained enormous boulders on the valleys below for a couple of hours. It has meant enduring the overwhelming stench of dead salmon from fish farms that line the river leading into the mountains.
“We didn’t have any choice but to come back to this place,” said Xiong, 37, who has led his village’s emergency response. “We ordinary people depend on this place for a living. We came back to see if we could find a way to survive, because relying on the government to provide food and housing is no solution.”
By a long measure, Shenxi, which lies only 11 kilometers, or 7 miles, from the epicenter, is far from the most stricken place in Sichuan, where the death toll has risen above 67,000. Of the hamlet’s 180 residents, four died; two remain missing. Still, the obstacles the survivors face, and their pluck in attempting to refashion their lives, are emblematic of the struggle faced by countless others in small towns throughout the thousands of square kilometers of the earthquake zone.
On May 15, three days after the earthquake, Xiong and others from the village had picked their way off the mountain, taking a dozen hours to reach the nearest town. Most ended up at a resettlement site in central Chengdu, the large provincial capital. But many said the idea of living as refugees, paired with distaste for city life, drove them to return home.
“I just couldn’t see myself living there for the rest of my life,” Xiong said.
For Wang Suqing, a 70-year-old who walked at a brisk pace up the pathless, rubble-strewn mountainside with a large load on his back, the decision to return hinged on what he called his only worldly possession, a 45-kilogram, or 100-pound, pig.
“I had to go back to check on things, because there’s a pig waiting to be fed,” he said. “It was fine when I left him, but it was deeply frightened and refused to eat at first. At least I have something left, though.”
Well over half the villagers are now back. Though they found that most buildings had collapsed outright and virtually all the rest were heavily damaged, they said they experienced a powerful sense of homecoming.
One after another spoke of being moved to find their neighbors had also returned, and by the strong communal spirit that has sent able-bodied men like Xiong up and down the mountain repeatedly for badly needed supplies.
But sitting amid the rubble of their homes or sleeping in crowded tents, they have also faced a profound sense of helplessness, and a question with no easy answers: What next?
The Chinese government is rushing to restore infrastructure throughout the earthquake zone, clearing roads and restoring electricity, water and telephone service as fast as it can. But the villagers said they believed it would be a year or more before the government would get around to rebuilding their winding little mountain road. Right now, for long stretches, there is no road at all. Almost absurdly, a man working single-handedly labored away with a shovel, trying to create a path along the crest of a huge mound of earth from the freshly cleaved mountainside.
Economically, one of the village’s mainstays has been spending by summer visitors from Chengdu; residents have built popular, cozy little guesthouses in the high hills. “If the road isn’t repaired, we can never do tourism again,” said Zhang Shiwen, one of three brothers who lived in a shared family compound and ran a guesthouse, both reduced to rubble.
A little farther up the hill, Wu Yan, 33, who was to have been keeper of the newly built Nong Jia Le, or Happy Country Home Inn, had still not recovered from her shock at its destruction.
The government has offered to help relocate people into apartments it plans to build in safe areas, or to give grants of about $4,000 for people who decide to rebuild on their own, a pittance compared with the $30,000 Wu said her family had borrowed to build the inn. “All my thoughts are on how to pay back the money we owe,” she said.
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