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The Shanglin county government estimates that 12,000 people from the county are still in Ghana.KIM KYUNG-HOON/Reuters

When Wen Haijian left home on May 20 last year to dig gold in Ghana, he promised to bring back a fortune. Those hopes were shattered when an urn with his ashes returned last month.

"A gang of armed robbers came to his mine on April 16," says his wife, sobbing in front of two framed pictures of Wen, a serious-looking, tall man with a square mustachioed face. "When he got up at night to check on the machinery, they shot him right in the head."

In Shanglin, a poor county in the southwestern Chinese province of Guangxi with a population of 470,000 people, most of the inhabitants are old people, women or children because so many men have gone to Ghana. The county government estimates that 12,000 people from Shanglin are still in the west African country.

In Shuitai, Wen's remote home village where almost everyone shares his surname, 100 of the 900 inhabitants are in Ghana. "On average, they go for three years," says Wen Ruchun, a woman whose husband is in Ghana as well. "The first year, you build up the mine and earn your investment back, the second year you start making some money, and the third year you come home."

That calculation has been shattered as the rapid expansion of Chinese-run small-scale mines has triggered conflict with residents and a fresh crackdown on illegal gold mining. On Sunday, Chinese officials said that Ghana would release the 169 Chinese citizens detained last week and would grant safe passage to others who agree to leave. In Shanglin, people expect many others to return in the next few weeks.

An anonymous account by someone claiming to be a Chinese miner in Ghana circulated on Chinese websites accuses Chinese miners of mistreating their Ghanaian workers and molesting women. Although miners reject such allegations, Chinese officials say the rapid expansion has fuelled conflict in Ghana.

"The situation is very severe," said the county government in a public announcement put up in the streets of Shanglin.

"Especially since April, incidents of murder among people from Shanglin in Ghana and the shooting dead of local residents have created serious safety problems and dissatisfaction among the local population." Late last year a 16-year-old Chinese boy was killed by Ghanaian security forces.

In Shuitai, old men and women with small children gather under a large old banyan tree to exchange the latest news from Ghana and share their worries.

"I can only wait for my son to call: he is hiding in the forest," says one woman. She has a scrap of paper with three phone numbers in Ghana and comes here everyday, hoping that a neighbour with a mobile phone contract allowing international calls will let her try to make a connection.

She dials and listens but reaches only voice mail. "They speak English again, I don't understand that," she says, leaning on her hoe in the midday heat. While the men are away in the gold mines, the women in Shuitai continue planting rice, waxy corn and cassava.

Just a generation ago, the villagers say, they mined gold in the hills behind their homes. When those were exhausted, they became the vanguard of the rush to exploit China's gold reserves in the big forests of Heilongjiang, in the northernmost corner of China. In recent years their search for gold has taken them to Ghana.

The villagers find it normal that their men had to protect themselves with AK-47 and hunting rifles. "We would have lots of gold there, and cash – if we didn't have guns, the blacks would rob us," says Wen Daming, a 51-year-old mine worker who returned home last month after his boss closed the mine because he felt things were becoming too dangerous.

But nobody in Shuitai understands why they have run into so much trouble there now. The Ghanaian government's accusation that the Chinese are mining illegally because local laws exclude foreigners from small-scale mining falls on deaf ears. Many of the miners feel their arrangements with landowners and their papers acquired with bribes should have protected them.

"My husband and his co-investors bought the mining licence from the local chief, and he got all the necessary documentation, including a working visa," says Wen Haijian's wife. "Here in China we have rule of law but there, in Ghana, they have feudalism."

For Shanglin, that means the gold rush is over. People from mining families expect all those who are in Ghana to return over the next few weeks. Workshops specialising in selling and customising gold mining equipment have closed down, with only the rust on the pavement telling of the brisk business they used to make.

Wen Haijian's wife now spends her days worrying how she can repay a Rmb200,000 ($32,600 U.S.) loan taken out to pay for her husband's stake in the mine and bring up two children without him.

Wen Daming is upset as well because he made less than Rmb100,000, far less than planned. Like many others, he built a new two-storey concrete home to replace his traditional yellow mud house but the money to finish it had yet to be earned in the gold mines of Ghana.

Wen Ruchun, another woman, says she does not care whether her husband made any money. "If he comes home alive, that's enough for me."

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