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Families cling to wishful calls of life
(China Daily)
Updated: 2004-02-10 22:33

As British police struggled to identify 19 victims who drowned picking shellfish at Morecambe Bay, seven families in East China's Fujian Province said they believed their missing family members were among the victims.

The families, all from Fuqing of the province, said their missing relatives -- all men -- had been working as shellfish gatherers in Britain.

Before the tragedy, all the men regularly telephoned back to China. But since last Thursday, none has called home again.

Having not eaten for three days and crying beside the telephone for the call that never comes, He Xiuyu said the last time her 42-year-old husband Xie Xiaowen called home was on last Tuesday.

"He said during that call that he had to work late every night. And he said he didn't care how exhausting the work was, as long as he could earn a little money," said He Xiuyu.

Xie Xiaowen, who used to be a construction labourer in Henan Province, ended up in a lot of debt before he went abroad.

He had wanted to do housefitting work abroad to earn money, but he could not land a job for a long time until he was recently hired to pick shellfish, his wife said.

"Xiaowen left home for abroad on October 17, 2002, but it wasn't until 11 months later that he finally arrived in Britain," said He Xiuyu. "The snakehead (organizer of human smuggling) cheated us. During the period, the cost of sending him abroad has also risen from the originally agreed 240,000 yuan (US$28,900) to 320,000 (US$38,600)."

The other six went to Britain in almost the same way -- paying snakeheads from 200,000 to 300,000 yuan (US$24,100 to US$36,140). The men were forced to travel as stowaways to the designated country.

They usually borrowed the money at exorbitant interest rates to cover the stowaway cost and worked hard abroad to pay back the lenders and earn money for their families.

Guo Nianzhu, 41, one of the missing men, took the job of picking shellfish because with what he earned at restaurants he could not even pay back the interest to the lending snakehead, according to his wife You Yinsong.

The family had already owed a large sum of money before Guo went abroad, because they borrowed some money to build a house and had three children who needed money to continue studying at their junior high school.

Since the wife could not work because of illnesses, Guo Nianzhu decided to go abroad and earn money as a "kind of gamble," You Yinsong said.

After taking the job of picking shellfish, Guo Nianzhu called home last Thursday, or the Lantern Festival, a day that Chinese families are supposed to spend together eating traditional dumplings.

"He had promised he would call home the next day again. How cruel-hearted he was not to give me a message again!" said You, who cried almost hysterically yesterday.

Guo Binglong, 30, is the only one among the seven men whose family has confirmed his death.

Guo's younger brother explained that Guo Binglong called home with a borrowed cell phone shortly before he died.

"My brother said the man hired by his British boss to watch the tide had got the time all wrong, an hour's difference, and how could they possibly run away from the water."

Guo's 56-year-old mother, seated on a bed, kept muttering : "My son said (on the phone): the water has risen to my chest, it's the English man's fault. The English man is to be blamed."

Guo Binglong was said to have gone abroad last February at a cost of nearly 250,000 yuan (US$30,100), and arrived in Britain only last July.

He had been working as shellfish gatherer since he entered Britain, but had only been doing the work for three or four days at Morecambe bay.

"My elder brother always called home when he was picking shellfish. He always told us the job was a hardship, and had to work at night as long as there was an ebb-tide," said Guo's younger brother.

To know as soon as possible Guo's situation, the family has faxed his detailed information to the Chinese Consulate in Manchester of the United Kingdom.

Guo Changmao, only 18 years old when the tragedy happened, is the youngest among the seven missing men.

He borrowed more than 300,000 yuan (US$36,140) to get to Britain last June.

His father Guo Yuanzhu said the young man had not landed a stable job since he got abroad, and had only washed dishes at restaurants or waited on the streets for day jobs.

"Just 10 days before the accident, he called home telling us he was so happy he finally got a job of picking shellfish," said the father. "But how can we expect this job would take him away from us!"

Guo's mother is still being told that her son had been saved. No one in the family has dared to tell her the truth.

"No matter whether he is alive or dead, we will bring him back home," Guo's father said.

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