QINGCHUAN, China – Dozens of men and women swarm over the mounds of debris of this ruined city, an eerie replay of the early days following China's devastating earthquake.
They are not searching for the missing and dead from the May 12 quake, which killed tens of thousands. Nor are they looking for lost belongings.
Instead, many are scavenging for any bit of scrap metal to sell so they can buy food and other necessities.
For the estimated 5 million homeless quake refugees in Sichuan province, the slow path to rebuilding their lives is lined with huge challenges.
Supplies of food and water are adequate for now, but shelter is limited, with a severe shortage of tents. The longer-term need for jobs and income has yet to be addressed by China's leaders.
Many refugees aren't waiting for the government; they are taking desperate measures to survive on their own.
As in other quake-hit towns, survivors in northern Qingchuan have discovered that recycling companies want the scrap metal from twisted and crumbled buildings.
Standing atop an enormous pile of rubble that was once a three-story building, Mao Hong Lin meticulously searched for the dull glint of metal. Spotting a pointed tip, he pulled out a twisted length of steel.
"It takes money to buy anything and everything. Now our house is collapsed and I have nothing. I need the money for basics, to buy salt and cooking oil," said Mao, 37, a short, wiry man in orange shorts and soiled white gloves.
Stooped over beside him was his 33-year-old wife, Dong Sheng Fang, digging with her bare hands. The two have been hunched over in the dust and debris for hours since dawn.
"Even before the quake, we were already very poor," she said during a short break.
"He had no fixed job; he only did a little labor," making about $4-$6 a day, she said. "But now even that is gone."
The start of 2008 had been a new beginning for the family, Dong said. They had begged relatives and friends for loans of $4,200. They had managed to get a 430-square-foot apartment that was home to seven people — the couple, their three children, and Mao's mother and brother.
Now the entire building is a pile of rubble.
"We borrowed all this money to buy a second-hand apartment at the beginning of the year. We now owe a lot of money. How will we repay it?" she said.
Although Chinese banks have been ordered to forgive debts owed by earthquake survivors who lack insurance, it's not certain such help would extend to Mao and his family.
Overwhelmed, she began crying as her husband lifted a gentle hand to wipe away her tears.
The two have joined others who have been coming for several days to one of dozens of demolished sites around town, after hearing that local salvage companies would pay about 7 cents for each pound of metal.
At the same site was Li Hong Shen, a 52-year-old janitor, who was swinging a crude pickax to crush blocks of concrete to extract the scrap metal.
"There's no other way to make money," he said, shrugging almost apologetically. "I feel a little bit guilty because so many people died here but I have my family to support."
He is caring for his wife, two daughters and an elderly mother. Their home collapsed during the quake, and they are living in a makeshift lean-to made of plastic tarp and wooden boards near the side of the road.
"What the government gives us is enough," he said, referring to the regular rations of bottled water, instant noodles, and biscuits given out by aid workers. "But food and water aren't everything in life. In the future, we need to rebuild our homes and that takes money."
Fellow survivors have discovered other quake-related, albeit dangerous, ways to earn hard cash.
Burly and bearded, farmer Lin Cen You, 38, was taking a break from his new job — venturing into badly damaged buildings to haul out the belongings of other refugees.
"They tell me what they want and I go get it," he said with a nonchalance that belies his precarious new profession. "It's a little dangerous but I don't fear anything now. I just need money to feed my family."
Scores of aftershocks have rumbled across the disaster zone, collapsing thousands of buildings. At least eight people have been killed in buildings that fell since the quake, state media have reported.
Lin, who lives in a mountain village an hour's hike away, heads into Qingchuan at 5:30 a.m. each day, offering his muscles for cash. He can make up to $7 a day retrieving furniture, TVs and appliances, well worth the risk, he said.
Still, he has had a couple of close calls. Lin rolled up his sleeves and pants to show bruises and scratches on his arms and legs. Earlier this week, a powerful aftershock in Qingchuan sent a chunk of a plaster falling on him as he was inside an apartment building.
"What else can I do?" he said. "I have no choice now. I am a farmer with nothing left to farm."
On a crowded street near scores of blue refugee tents, a handful of mom-and-pop merchants lucky enough to salvage their wares set their goods on display — bags of spices, bottles of soft drinks, bunches of dried noodles.
Customers are scarce but the vendors say even a small sale helps.
Vegetable seller Zhou Xiao Mei, 30, got a loan from her regular suppliers in a nearby city and received half a truckload of fresh produce this week that she displayed on the sidewalk — plump eggplant, piles of crisp green peppers, ripe tomatoes and mounds of pungent garlic.
The day before, an old man picked out $6 worth of vegetables, even though he had only about 14 cents with him, she said.
"We gave it to him anyway," said Zhou, who added that she lost everything in the quake except the clothes in which she ran out of the house.
"They try to pay what they can. Now is not the time for business. We need to help each other," she said.