Six Months After Deadly Sichuan Earthquake, A Family Struggles For Survival

BEICHUAN, China -- When Mu Xiangui and his family lost their home and most of their town to the catastrophic Sichuan earthquake in May, it seemed logical they would abandon this place that, suddenly, sat amid madness and devastation.

But they had neither the desire nor the money to leave. Six months since the disaster that killed 70,000 people and left another 18,000 missing, the chaos has calmed. Now the Mu family faces a different, but no less bleak reality: they are homeless at the start of a cold mountain winter with a 90-year-old father and a cousin's toddler to care for.

The family was lucky by local standards. Beichuan -- the city worst hit by the 7.9-magnitude quake -- is a ghost town, sealed off by high fences and army patrols. The Mus lost no immediate members to the catastrophic quake. Their two sons had graduated a few years earlier from the middle school where 1,000 children died.

Instead, Mu Xiangui and his family were saviors to many. Their farmhouse, situated on the road that descends into the city and across the street from the middle school, became a refuge for those fleeing the ruins. The quake struck in mid-afternoon, naptime in rural Sichuan, and many had stripped down to their underwear to rest from the sun. The Mu family gave their own clothes to fleeing survivors, helped pull children from the crumbled school, then for days served jugs of tea to beleaguered soldiers and rescue teams digging through rubble, looking for survivors.

Today, most of the soldiers are gone and aid workers are focused on people in temporary shelters miles away. But the troubles continue for the Mus. In September, their valley flooded and mudslides came down, soaking their belongings and slicing off more farmland. It's now the Mu family that needs help.

"No one bothered to come and help us then," Mu said of the flood that took three days to clear.

They are not alone in being homeless and vulnerable in Sichuan. Across the region, there are few clear answers about what will happen next. The Mu family has no money to rebuild and is overextended with loans to pay for their two sons' education. They accepted a government offer to give up a spot in a temporary shelter in exchange for 2,000 yuan ($293), but the government then ordered them to destroy the remaining walls of their farmhouse to make way for a sewer project. After sheltering in unheated tents on the outskirts of town, the family has moved into an abandoned building.

"We're afraid of what is going to happen now that winter is coming," said Fu Mingbi, Mu's wife.

Across the earthquake zone, the story varies but there are elements of uncertainty everywhere. Survivors fear having enough warm clothes and blankets while thousands more scurry to make use of piecemeal government brick shipments by putting up new farmhouses with such speed that their safety in another quake seems suspect. Many more, like the Mu family, are waiting before attempting to rebuild, fearing that strong aftershocks could topple new buildings.

During a November news conference in Beijing, government officials said 200,000 destroyed homes had been rebuilt and another 685,000 are under construction. But nearly 2 million homes remain in need of repair or rebuilding. Blankets and warm clothes are in short supply.

Earthquake survivors, many of whom cling to old friends and neighbors in temporary shelter villages that dot Sichuan's valleys, are starting to feel forgotten. The deluge of domestic and international aid and volunteers that poured in after the May 12 quake has dried up, they say.

In Beichuan the Mu family is committed to their hometown, a beautiful slice of Sichuan mountain scenery that has now become a tomb for thousands. Officially, 15,600 people died in the county of the same name and another 4,400 are missing, while locals say the death toll is higher. Several hundred teenagers remain buried beneath the rubble of the middle school across the road from the Mu family farm. Beichuan city will be rebuilt elsewhere but the Mu family plans to remain.

"We don't want to leave, even with the way things are here," said Fu Zelin, Mu's son, an engineering student in Chengdu. "It's like a beautiful painting here. It will be beautiful again." launches January 12, 2009.