Chen Fuzhen was bathing her infant son when the earthquake struck Longmen early on Saturday morning.
The 31-year-old mother grabbed her baby and 11-year-old daughter and rushed down the stairs of her two-floor house. Ms. Chen made it out of the front door just in time — she watched her home and her life’s belongings come crashing down.
Dozens of others in Longmen, one of the counties worst affected by the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that struck Sichuan province, were not as lucky. Many lost their lives as more than 5,000 of the 7,000 homes there collapsed.
Ms. Chen’s husband, like most men in predominantly rural Longmen, is not employed in Sichuan, a province which is China’s biggest exporter of labour. Tens of thousands from Sichuan move to Guangdong and other provinces in the southern manufacturing heartland to power Chinese industry.
Most homes in Longmen are occupied only by women, children and the elderly. It is also not uncommon in many Chinese villages for both parents to migrate in search of work, leaving grandparents to look after their “left-behind children”, as they are known.
A whole generation of “left-behind children” has grown up in rural China without their parents because of household registration rules, which restrict access to education and healthcare for migrant workers who leave their home towns. Staying behind means the children can receive nine years of free education as well as access to local hospitals.
The earthquake, Chinese media reports say, has been particularly devastating because of its impact on the elderly and young children, who have had to cope with the disaster with little help.
In the village of Gucheng, in Longmen, there are as many as 160 left-behind children, The China Daily reported. The numbers were likely to be higher in other towns.
“If the men were at home when the earthquake happened, maybe more people would have been saved or uninjured,” Zhang Qingqiu (31), mother of a nine-month-old, told the newspaper, which also reported Chen Fuzhen’s story. Ms. Chen’s husband was employed in the booming municipality of Chongqing, which lies a few hundred km east of Longmen and was carved out of Sichuan province 15 years ago.
Ms. Zhang recounted how a 12-year-old girl was seriously hurt when she tried to save her two-year-old brother, who she looked after because her parents were employed in another province and her grandparents were away from home. “They wouldn’t have to suffer the pain if parents were at home,” Ms. Zhang said.
Teachers at the Longmen primary school were quoted as saying there were dozens of “left-behind” students who will have to deal with the quake’s aftermath on their own.
How rescue workers will provide for hundreds of these children is just one among the many challenges in the recovery process.
As of Monday, at least 192 people were reported to have died in the earthquake, with 23 missing. At least 11,470 were injured, among whom 968 were in a serious condition.
Local officials have expressed concerns about a shortage of food, tents, and other supplies, with landslips and narrow mountain roads limiting access to Longmen, Baoxing and other counties. More than 2,000 aftershocks have been reported since Saturday. Light rain on Monday, expected to continue for another two days, has further slowed down recovery work, officials said.
More than 19,000 soldiers have been dispatched to quake-hit areas to continue the search for survivors and to resettle 24,000 people, the official Xinhua news agency reported, while the government has announced a $ 1 billion Yuan ($ 161 million) relief fund.