Packed into trucks and buses, tens of thousands of soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army began leaving southwestern China’s earthquake zone on Monday, signaling a shift here from short-term recovery efforts to long-term reconstruction work.
The first stage of the troop departure, involving about 40,000 soldiers, came on the orders of President Hu Jintao, just over two months after the earthquake struck, according to Xinhua, the official state news agency.
In the afternoon, a long stretch of six-lane highway south of this city, in northern Sichuan Province, was lined with more than 100 green army trucks and civilian minibuses waiting to depart. Soldiers in fatigues loitered by the vehicles or slept inside. Many had the same tired, bored or far-off look of the soldiers who were bused into the chaotic quake-stricken cities in the hours after the earthquake hit on May 12.
“They did a good job and they’re very young, 18 or 19 years old, just like our children,” said Yu Tingyun, 42, a driver from north of Mianzhu who lost his only child, an 18-year-old daughter, in a school collapse during the earthquake.
The 7.9-magnitude tremor razed entire towns and villages in this mountainous swath of China, leaving nearly 70,000 people dead and 18,000 missing. China mobilized 130,000 military service members and police officers in the broadest deployment of the nation’s armed forces since a border war with Vietnam in 1979.
Soldiers were quickly deployed into the ravaged areas, many hiking into the mountains and across landslide-blocked roads. Most were untrained in rescue work, prompting criticism from some Western analysts of the People’s Liberation Army.
But many Chinese have praised the army’s work. Xinhua reported that as of Friday, the armed forces had repaired more than 9,200 miles of road, built 220,000 shelters and relocated more than 1.4 million people.
Xinhua also highlighted the martyrdom of Wu Wenbin, 26, a soldier who died on June 18 from “massive blood loss in the lungs due to overwork in quake-relief missions.”
A television documentary about the army’s rescue work has the English words “Super Warriors” in a corner of the screen. Sweeping movie theme music accompanies the footage.
At an intersection north of Mianzhu, a large billboard shows soldiers in heroic action: fording a river to reach quake survivors, carrying two babies in their arms and cradling the head of a woman drinking from a canteen.
The unit is one posted in Yunnan Province. Its nickname is Iron Army.
“The local military troops aren’t as good as the soldiers from outside,” said Huang Lianfen, 33, whose teenage nephew was killed in the same school collapse as Mr. Yu’s daughter. “The ones from outside have better machinery. After they arrived, the rescue work went very quickly. They arrived three days afterward.”
Ms. Huang said the soldiers from Beijing and Shenzhen, a booming city north of Hong Kong, seemed especially well equipped. But she had kind words for all the troops.
“The soldiers were tired,” she said. “We offered our food to them, and they didn’t even take it.”
Ms. Huang’s words echo the legends surrounding the Communist Army that Mao led to victory in the Chinese civil war. It was said that those soldiers were so well behaved they did not even take thread from the homes of villagers to mend their clothes.
“We sent a red banner to some soldiers to thank them,” Mr. Yu said of the present-day warriors. “But they refused it, saying this was their job.”