DONGSHIGU VILLAGE, China — The fear is palpable and most people only dare whisper Chen Guangcheng's name in this village amid wheat fields where the blind activist was held under brutal house arrest.
The guards and cameras are gone, but residents remain terrified of local officials and the fellow farmers who meted out the mistreatment — and still live nearby. Even Chen's mother says he should not come home.
"The government spent lots of money to watch the little blind one," Liu Wencai, an elderly farmer, told The Associated Press as he walked down a village alley Friday.
But when asked about the hired enforcers, Liu said, "I cannot answer."
Chen escaped six weeks ago and is now living in New York with his wife and two young children. The villagers he left behind don't want to talk about the brutality he and his family were subjected to during 19 months of house arrest.
A middle-aged man on a motorcycle refused to speak about the guards who once stood at the entrance to Dongshigu and chased outsiders away. He made a throat-slashing gesture before riding away — a warning that the topic of security remains taboo.
The edginess was in contrast to the lushness of early summer and the bucolic scene: Freshly harvested wheat lay in open spaces and women thrashed laundry by a river that borders this village of about 500 people some 370 miles southeast of Beijing.
Days ago, the security cameras, watchmen's huts and even piles of garbage created by the surveillance squad were all rapidly cleared away, without explanation.
Chen's relatives were able to host reporters for the first time in the nearly two years since the activist was released from a four-year prison term, only to be confined to his home.
His brother, Chen Guangfu, showed AP reporters Chen's rural courtyard home and his escape route: He clambered over rugged 13-foot-high rock walls and tumbled into a neighbor's pig sty, where he lay an entire afternoon before emerging under the cover of night.
He eventually reached Beijing, where U.S. diplomats arranged with the Chinese government for him to travel to New York for study, along with his wife Yuan Weijing, 6-year-old daughter Kesi and 10-year-old son Kerui.
The only remaining resident at his house in Dongshigu is his 78-year-old mother, Wang Jinxiang, who frets over what food Chen will find in America and misses him terribly — but who says he should not come back.Comment on this story
"Come back for what?" she asked. "He just spent all his time at home because they wouldn't let him go out."
Chen and his wife lived in a room where plastic sheets covered cracks in the wall and a pink mosquito net hung over the bed, next to a three-drawer wooden desk. A pink child's bike stood near the door.
Just a couple of months ago, securityguards occupied the courtyard and formed rings around the outside of the home. No neighbors were allowed to visit, Chen's family said.
Blinded by fever in infancy, Chen taught himself law and became known for defending the rights of poor farmers.