Mon, Mar 21, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Dreams of work in Iraq turn into nightmare

Large numbers of impoverished Chinese have been heading to war-torn Iraq where construction work is abundant. Two men made the journey recently, only to be kidnapped by militants and sent back to China where they are now faced with mounting debts

By Verna Yu  /  AFP , PINGJIAO ZIRAN VILLAGE, CHINA

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

Sitting on a wooden bench in his spartan house in this tiny seaside village, Xue Yougui's boyish face lights up when he talks about his first trip on an aeroplane last April.

"It was my first time on the plane, it seemed like fun at the time," the 28-year-old says. "I had never seen a plane close-up so I was very excited."

Holding his 18-month-old son, despondency soon returns to Xue as his thoughts snap back to reality.

His much-anticipated first trip abroad went badly wrong.

Like many others from his native Pingtan Island in southeastern Fujian Province, and thousands more in China's poor remote areas, Xue was determined to leave behind his mundane life as a fisherman to seek work overseas.

But instead of finding their dreams, Xue and his 30-year-old neighbor Li Guiping were abducted, along with five other Chinese hostages, soon after they arrived in war-torn Iraq -- a country they knew virtually nothing about.

They were lucky enough to be released, but talking to them, you don't see the sense of relief one might expect from someone who has escaped the clutches of militants in a far-off land. Instead, they display an air of hopelessness, weighed down by their worries of paying off family debts and making a decent living to support their wives and children.

Since they came back last April, Xue has returned to fishing while Li spends his days taxiing people on his motorcycle -- just as they did in the years before their fateful trip to Iraq. Li earns between 20 yuan and 30 yuan a day (US$2.4 and US$3.6), while his wife toils 12 hours a day collecting seaweed and shellfish for 30 yuan, and that only when there is work in the summer.

Li says the meagre income can hardly pay for the family's outgoing expenditure.

At the time he was contemplating going abroad, Li's father was suffering from glaucoma and needed to pay for an operation. The couple also had a new baby to look after.

Although government slogans emblazoned on the walls all over villages on Pingtan Island warn people against illegal migration, few pay attention to them. Villagers have their livelihoods to think about and there is little work.

Isolated Pingjiao Ziran village lies on the coast of on Pingtan, just off Fujian. In amongst a rocky landscape, a few tiny patches of cultivated land grow cabbages and sweet potatoes.

Over the rocks roam a few skinny goats, gnawing on the few patches of grass.

"There is nothing to do here," Li says, shaking his head and looking down at the floor.

There are no factories nearby and even the fishermen in the village have limited waters to work in because they tend to be occupied by larger, more powerful, family clans.

To the villagers, hunger is never far from their minds.

Their usual diet is thin rice congee and a few slices of sweet potatoes. Meat and fish is only eaten during celebrations and festivals a few times a year.

Li says he once went to find work in the southern city of Guangzhou for two months, but as an unskilled migrant worker, he only managed to save 200 yuan a month so he came home. Then he tried for a year to run a deep-fried food shop, but made a loss and ran up debts.

It was this existence that drove Li and Xue to try their luck abroad.

At that time adverts extolling work and money in Iraq -- a country they had never heard of -- started to appear around the island. According to villagers, several people from Pingtan had already been to Iraq and became construction workers and decorators. They told their friends back home that they could earn the equivalent of 7,000 yuan to 8,000 yuan (US$845 and US$966) a month in Iraq -- more than 10 times the villagers' usual income.

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