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 (600 kilometers) 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 (4-meter) 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.
"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. In the courtyard, a kitten ran around a chicken coop and a dog barked at strangers.
Just a couple of months ago, security guards 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 and the disabled in the wheat, soybean and peanut farming country of Shandong province. His exposure of forced abortions and sterilizations under the government's one-child policy embarrassed local officials.
He was imprisoned on what supporters say were trumped-up charges. Then, after he was released into house arrest, local officials and the people they hired sometimes beat Chen and his wife, roughed up his mother and harassed their young daughter. Some of the hired toughs came from local communities, getting paid 100 yuan, or $16, a day to chase away unwanted visitors and torment the Chen family.
On the road outside Chen's home, three women — taking a rest from field work — told reporters they are happier now that the security guards are gone. But they quickly dispersed when four local officials showed up and asked reporters to leave so as not to distract farmers during harvesting season.
"This village is very peaceful. Nothing happens here," one of the officials said. "It needs a quiet environment to develop its economy."
Two of them said they were from the village and two from a Yinan County team in charge of fostering economic development in Dongshigu. All refused to give their names.
Chen's family has said the enforcers came mostly from neighboring communities, including Xishigu and Xiaobu, where Chen says government official Gao Xinjian was a ringleader in recruiting the surveillance team.
"They sold out their conscience for money," his brother, Chen Guangfu, said. "It was a pretty good gig: 100 yuan per day and three free meals. Villagers cursed their ancestors, but they did not care."
The dozen or so residents of Xishigu interviewed by the AP all denied that their fellow villagers worked to guard Chen Guangcheng.
In Xiaobu, the streets were largely deserted, but a skinny, bespectacled man who ran a convenient store and who refused to give his name referred vaguely to residents who worked as guards.
"They used to be farmers, and now of course they went back to farming," he said. "They simply want to make some money."
Soon, a middle-aged man in a dark striped shirt walked up and asked reporters to leave. He declined to give his name or identity. Later, the officials who had confronted reporters in Dongshigu arrived in a silver sedan. They threatened to confiscate the reporters' car and then followed them out of town.