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Life: Between hell and the Stone of
- Subject: Life: Between hell and the Stone of
- From: darnott@xxxxxxxxxxx
- Date: Sun, 11 Nov 2001 19:22:00
November 11, 2001
Life: Between hell and the Stone of Heaven:
More than a million miners desperately excavate the bedrock of a remote
valley hidden in the shadows of the Himalayas. They are in search of just
one thing - jadeite, the most valuable gemstone in the world. But with
wages paid in pure heroin and HIV rampant, the miners are paying an even
higher price. Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark travel to the death camps
Adrian Levy & Cathy Scott-Clark
Follow the flurry of shawls and the vapour trail of perfume through
the arcades of Pacific Place, passing Gucci, Cartier and Tiffany, beside
adverts featuring silver forks that twirl gold chains like spaghetti and
you'll arrive at Hong Kong's five-star JW Marriott Hotel.
Every year, twice a year, in one of the Marriott's luxurious salons,
Christie's stage two extraordinary auctions that reap the kind of profits
normally only associated with the sale of a Monet or a Van Gogh. But it's
not paintings that are for sale here.
Flourishing his gavel, Christie's urbane vice chairman Francois
Curiel resembles a starter at the 1,000 Guineas, his stewards corralling
clients into position. A skitter of Jimmy Choos paw the shagpile, a line of
glossy manes quiver for the off. Virtually everyone at this Hong King sale
would rather remain anonymous. Paparazzi hang around outside the Marriott
hoping to snap a movie star or perhaps even a drug baron. We spy a few
faces including Kowloon jeweller Sammy Chow whose family once dealt to
Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton, Joan Crawford and Merle Oberon and whose
clients today include Imelda Marcos and Madame Chiang Kai-shek. Frank Tieh
is also at the sale, pacing himself for the running, a wealthy Dallas
collector and real-estate magnate whose father was revered across Asia as
the gem king of Peking. In the front row are newly weds from the Chinese
mainland, shopping for honeymoon gifts. Experts from London's Bond Street
hang to the left and the right, fearful that they have far too little to
spend at a sale where only the world's super rich can hope to contend.
Everyone is here to bid for a sliver of the most precious stone in
the world, not sapphires, rubies or even diamonds, but an obscure silicate
of aluminium, sodium and silicon - jadeite. Barely known in the West, it is
revered across the East as the Stone of Heaven and is said to resemble the
colours of a kingfisher's neck feathers, the only thing on earth that comes
near to matching its brilliant, bottle-green hue.
'A magnificent jadeite cabochon ring. And just to let you know my
book is full of bids,' Curiel purrs. The running will be furious for a
stone that adorns Hollywood stars like Michelle Yeoh and Nicole Kidman.
'Five, six, six, seven, eight. With you at the back, sir, in the sport's
jacket again.' And before you get complacent, remember that Curiel is
taking bids in millions of HK dollars. 'The bid is all the way from New
York, Geneva, to London, to Paris at Dollars 12m.' A Christie's salesman
talks furiously into a phone, wringing another 2m from his unseen client.
'One more go, to 14m? Yes? No, too late. It's now with you Anthony, at
16m.' Curiel swivels towards the slick Anthony Lin, Christie's Hong Kong
chairman, who is dancing with his mobile phone head-set in a silver tongued
'Six-teen-mill-ion-Hong-Kong-dollars,' shouts Curiel. Excitement
gallops around the room. 'Seven-teen-mill-ion-dollars,' cries Curiel as
another Asian collector shoots his paddle into the air.
The gavel hovers. A crackle of expectation. Faces flushed with the
thrill of the chase. Then yet another paddle rises. It's the man they call
Mr Fuji, a Hong Kong Chinese businessman in the photographic film trade,
who's here doing a little shopping with his daughter Betty.
A brief hush before the gavel falls. Curiel is delighted. The sale is
going exceptionally well and by the time it concludes, three more world
records will have been set by jadeite.
Mr Fuji is swathed in adulation, a steward kneels before him with a
tray of free sandwiches, after all the photographic film tycoon has just
paid pounds 1.48m for a jelly bean-sized jadeite ring.
A gem-trade magazine we pick up in the lobby features an intriguing
quote by Richard Hughes, a US specialist. 'We are not selling gemstones,
something that has no value to anyone,' Hughes advises his fellow
jewellers. 'What we are selling is illusion. People do not buy a stone they
buy a story, a vision of a mine or country, a bit of history, something
they can tell their friends about. De Beers knows this, which is why they
don't sell diamonds, they sell love.'
Open a Christie's catalogue and absorb the allure of this prohibitive
jewel. 'For the superstitious the identity of the previous collectors is
important, many not wishing to own a piece that brings poor fortune or
illness,' the sales material gushes. 'This is especially the case with
jadeite jewellery worn next to the skin and surrounded with mystique,
believed by some to be able to absorb the essence of its previous owners.'
The pages are lacquered with pictures. The Qianlong Emperor of China
who in the 18th century ransomed his kingdom for the Stone of Heaven and
attempted to win the hand of a consort, the legendary Fragrant Concubine of
Kashgar, by showering her with jadeite gifts including a pendant carved
into a delicate pepper. The Dragon Lady, Empress Dowager Cixi, who ruled
over China in the 19th century with wands made -> <- of jadeite and
slippers fringed in the stone.
But no one at this sale is talking about the source of the most
valuable stone in the world, a place encircled by 10,000 Burmese troops, a
shifting city of a million labourers. In the jungles of northern Burma lies
one of the remotest mines in the world that has defied western treasure
hunters since the voyages of Marco Polo - until we found it, after
hoodwinking the Burmese junta. After a journey that had taken three years
to prepare, what we discovered was a medieval vision of hell, a place of
poor fortune and terrible illness.
When we first heard the rumours, they were garbled. Interviewing
Burmese refugees in camps strung along the Thai-Burma border three years
ago, we were told stories of how vast tracts of the Burmese jungle were
being cut away by government soldiers. A valley in the foothills of the
Himalayas, an area in the far north of Burma known as the Kachin Hills, was
reportedly being excavated on the orders of the military regime that rules
this impoverished and oppressed nation.
The refugees claimed that within a military cordon lay a special
government project that rumbled like a freight train. Eyewitnesses said
that at night the jungle canopy was strung with lights that glowed like the
Every day, a long line of trucks drove into the project, carrying
thousands of labourers from all over Burma. Every night, the same trucks
emerged loaded down with boulders and bundles, longyis, sandals, shorts and
bamboo hats, wrapped up in oilskin and twine. The Burmese jungle was
holding more than a million people captive, many of whom were sick or
dying, the refugees claimed. But what was being mined?
The refugees' rumours appeared to stem from a place called Hpakant, a
long forgotten mine in the Kachin Hills, a place we first found reference
to in the Chinese Imperial annals stored in the Forbidden City in Beijing.
There, inside huge chronicles penned in vermilion ink, we read how the
mandarins of the Middle Kingdom consumed powdered jadeite from the mines of
Hpakant as an elixir of life while concubines used it in love-making. In
the 19th century, jadeite became the peacemaker of Asia, when Burma's
ruling dynasty brokered regional alliances by sending elephant convoys
loaded down with jadeite hauled from Hpakant on 3,000-mile journeys to Peking.
Buried inside the National Archives of India in New Delhi, tied up
with faded pink ribbons in fragile packets marked Foreign and Secret, we
uncovered a record of how European explorers combed the Burmese jungle
looking for jadeite's source. But they all returned empty-handed, until
December 1836, when a British army surgeon and a botanist set out for Upper
In pipe-tobacco-scented journals, we read of a momentous journey of
five months and two days undertaken by Dr George Bayfield, of Fort St
George, Madras, and Dr William Griffith, of the Royal Botanical Gardens at
Kew. In April 1837 they eventually emerged from 'a jungly and evil place'
with a hand-drawn map and a grid reference for the jadeite mine: 'latitude
25degrees/26degrees north and 96degrees/97degrees east'. But the story they
told their superiors back in London was that the legendary pits were empty,
worked to a standstill. A handful of ailing miners had sent them packing
with rocks and arrows.
Until the Burmese refugees began telling their stories, it was
assumed in the West that this jadeite mine had long ceased to exist. We
took up Bayfield and Griffith's trail and the fear gripped us as soon as we
slipped past the line of plain-clothed intelligence officers who sift
through all new arrivals at Rangoon's airless airport.
They call it Burma Head, that creeping state of paranoia that begins
with a balling up of your stomach and evolves into obsessive behaviour: not
to walk down the same street twice; to move hotel rooms every two days; to
keep a chair pressed against the door; to presume everyone knows who you
are. And, of course, paranoia drifts into delusion, chance conversations
become an interrogation. We did have reasons to be worried - the Burmese
regime had blacklisted us over a previous story we had written for The
Observer and there were certainly pictures of us pinned up at the airports
and in the Military Intelligence headquarters in Rangoon.
However, hiding behind new identities, we decided to tackle the
military regime head-on and made an appointment with the army officer who
managed the Burmese mining industry. Sitting in his shuttered office, he
introduced himself as Colonel Maunt Maunt Aye. We talked too much and
nervously rattled our cups of green tea until the Colonel held up his hands.
It was all very difficult. We said we understood. It would be
extraordinary. We agreed. But there was an outside possibility of getting
to the jadeite pits if we could contribute to the cost of arranging such a
difficult journey. A silence crowded his tiny office. Was the Colonel
asking us for money? 'About USDollars 1,200 in theory, my administrative
costs for your difficult journey,' he stuttered into his tea.
Two weeks later, we flew towards Myitkyina, a garrison town Dr
Bayfield had described as 'the end of the earth', the capital of Kachin
State in the far north of Burma. The Colonel had promised to deliver us a
permit to visit the jadeite pits if we waited for his messenger in this
remote outpost. And after seven days a corporal caught up with us. The very
next morning, we roared out of town, kicking up a cloud of yellow dust.
We rumbled past the airport and into a militarised zone, the
headquarters of the Burmese army's Northern Command. Legions of troops
marched on the roadside; their boots and tunics caked in dirt, churned up
by armoured cars that hurtled across the scorched ground. Endless army
lines drifted past the car window, barricades and barbed wire stretching to
the horizon, trenches and gun emplacements on every bend. Amid the ordered
chaos of the army's mobilisation, heads spun around to catch a glimpse,
whispers passing along the lines, a rumour slowly spreading like mustard
gas through the battalions of infantry: foreigners were on the road to
Eventually, after eight hours and 26 checkpoints, our battered car
dragged itself to the summit of a razor-back ridge. Before us was a
brutalised landscape, the mountains reduced to rubble. The valley floor
plunged into an amber chasm, its walls, like a Roman amphitheatre, dropped
hundreds of feet into the dark where only the fluttering shadows of miners
could be seen amid the dust. As we drew nearer we could make out thousands
of nearly naked men and women cloaked in mud and bamboo hats hauling
boulders and earth in cane baskets. Others plunged 8ft steel staves into
the hillside, breaking away crumbs of rock and soil. To the left, men and
women washed themselves in the slurry, pouring it over their hair and
limbs. To the right, skeletal wooden ladders rose out of the craters,
running up rock chimneys. It was impossible not to be awed by the magnitude
of the regime's project
Our military escort then took us down into the nearest pit, the dust
choking our throats and eyes. Hundreds of diggers and carriers, all glazed
with mud, turned to look at us, their heads raised by our alien consonants.
'Dig, dig. They want to see you. Dig for the foreigners,' the corporal
shrieked. 'Harder. Do you want them to think you're useless?'
We wanted to shout him down, to tell those people who looked at us
with contempt that we were not the regime's clients, but instead we
dutifully listened as the corporal played the role of overseer. Suddenly, a
miner dropped to his knees, his bruised arms scooping a stone out of the
dirt, but the corporal was there before him. 'Green, green. I saw it
first,' he yel- led knocking the teenage digger aside, snatching his
splinter of jadeite. The boy fell to the ground, his spindly legs and arms
a jumble of bamboo poles. 'A present from Hpakant,' the corporal said
presenting us with the nugget. We were too ashamed to -> <- look at the
miner who had lost his shard and crawled up the hairpins and out of the pit.
That night, the corporal slumped into a drunken coma and we slipped
out to plunge into the steaming lanes around the jadeite mines, 50 pits
each the size of a football stadium. Inside hundreds of bamboo huts, strung
out like upturned coffins, we found sweating miners packed together, a
jumble of limbs, of clammy skin, of pin-prick pupils and ripped longyis all
enveloped in a cloying stench of vomit and ammonia. Farmers, students,
factory workers, teachers.
Zaw Min, who spoke fluent English, was 32 years old and had been a
first year student at Rangoon University until it was closed down in 1988
when thousands were gunned down on the streets of the capital. 'I dreamed
of getting my science degree and then studying for a PhD. But we had no
money and no time. So I decided to gamble for a living and when I first
arrived here it was exhilarating. I told myself that every piece of stone I
dug out of the pit was something special: a motorbike, a home, a priceless
necklace. But I never found any stones of value and I'm still here, like a
The bundle of soiled clothes lying next to Zaw Min twitched. A
dark-skinned face emerged from the heap. Lui Vang was a 28-year-old farmer
forced into friendship with Zaw Min by circumstance. Propping his head up,
Lui Vang said the army had come to his village six months before and taken
his family's store of rice. His wife and children had fled into the jungle
but he and 20 friends had clubbed together to pay for a six-day truck ride
to the mines.
How had he heard of the mine? The farmer laughed. 'What do you think?
Everyone has heard about the jade. Burma is a poor country now and
everybody dreams of making money. Twenty of us came here, but now only
three of my friends are still working. The SPDC has a price on our heads.'
Lui Vang's voice trailed off. But Zaw Min spoke up. 'I'll tell you what
happened to his friends. Twelve of them are dead. Four of them have
disappeared. One is alive, kind of.'
Lui Vang rolled over and eased himself into a pair of jeans, wincing
as he bent his swollen knees. 'You want to see what happens to us? We all
wanted new lives, but this isn't living. I want to get out and go home to
my wife and two children, but it's too late. I dream of her cooking plates
of rice and chicken, spending hours eating at our table. But these are all
stupid dreams and they cannot keep me alive. If you want to know what
Hpakant is then come with me.'
Together we shuffled to a neighbouring alley, filled with expectation
as Lui Vang cleared the path before him. We reached a Chinese general store
and uneasily followed him inside. We found the darkest corner and squatted
in silence among the mosquitoes. Gatecrashers at a private party, we smiled
with exaggerated grins. And then we pulled our shirts up over our faces to
block out the stench of stale urine and sweat that no one else seemed to
smell and watched the story of Hpakant unfold.
Two figures knelt on rush mats around a fire pit. An older man
dissolved white powder in a solution and then examined the younger man's
identity card. The older man picked up a rubber hose attached to a
blackened needle and jabbed it into the younger man's vein. He sucked hard
until the tube was full of blood and poured in the heroin solution. He then
took a deep breath before blowing into the pipe. The mixture of blood and
heroin surged into the younger man's blood-stream and a smile flew across
his face. 'Go now, see you tomorrow,' the shooting gallery owner urged,
wiping blood from the needle on his longyi. The younger man floated out of
the hut, breathing in short, shallow gasps. The older man put the open end
of the perished tube back into his mouth and blew it clear. Now he called
for Lui Vang who popped up, his sleeve already rolled. The older man
checked his identity card before the drill was repeated. New heroin
solution. Same needle.
It was a macabre peep show and we felt ashamed as Lui Vang showed us
how he bought peace with a needle that would probably kill him. Grimacing
as his arm was hooked up, he jerked and gasped as the solution mingled with
his blood. He turned to us, his pupils contracting, his knotted shoulders
falling back, euphoria bleeding from his arm. 'Want some?' he stammered,
pushing the tube towards us. 'Take the tube.' But we just sat there and he
lurched into the corner of the hut muttering 'This is how we forget.' Hands
pushed us up on to our feet. Someone pulled on our shirts. 'People are
afraid of you. You must go. Get out. Now.'
Later, the owner of a shooting gallery explained how the mine
operators offered their crews pure heroin in lieu of their wages, the value
of the drug set against any jadeite they might find. 'Hpakant is a
miserable place and heroin stops the pain,' he said. 'Heroin makes memories
distant. It is better for the mine owners this way. Their workers are very
passive. They are addicted to Hpakant.'
But how was he able to keep his business concealed in a town crawling
with Burmese soldiers? 'I don't.' He seemed surprised. 'The government
licenses my business. The soldiers deliver the drugs here or they pay truck
drivers to bring it in. Some of the heroin I provide has been pre-paid for
by the mine owners who arrange for us to give free daily fixes to employees
who show me their identity card. The rest we buy from dealers approved by
the army. If a miner needs more than his daily quota he can buy 15g for
2,500 kyat (pounds 8). The heroin is always pure; this is Burma after all.
My only problem is needles. Needles are hard to come by and so we have to
make them last - 800 customers per needle. Sometimes fewer, if they break.'
The Burmese regime's cannibalistic strategy was confirmed by a doctor
we found working covertly in the mines. He estimated that more than 60 per
cent of the constantly changing residents of Hpakant, virtually all of the
male population of 500,000, were paid in heroin. Most of the miners that he
had examined took between 5 and 10g a day, compared to the average of 0.5g
consumed by a user in the UK. Needles were illegal and so they were shared,
the addicts also sleeping with prostitutes, many of them press-ganged into
the brothels. Needless to say there were no condoms. The cycle of infection
was completed. 'How can you expect them to know what Aids is when their
government claims that it is a foreign disease and denies its presence in
Burma?' he asked. The doctor was referring to a recent statement from
health minister Major Ket Sein.
'They call it Jade Disease here, but it is quite clear we have a
catastrophic HIV problem in the mines and everyone who injects and has
unprotected sex will almost certainly contract it. Most of them don't live
long enough to develop full-blown Aids, but they do live long enough to
pass on the virus. Those that do manage to leave the mines, return to their
towns and villages, taking with them the scourge of Hpakant.'
Over the four days and nights we spent in Hpakant, we saw how the
jadeite mines had myriad ways to mesmerise its labourers. The downward
spiral that began with eating opium graduated to chasing dragons around
severed Coca-Cola tins. The heroin blowpipes were then taken by those more
committed to losing themselves. But there were halls and huts around every
pit, beside every bar and brothel, each of them offering variations on the
same addictive theme. When the paranoia of shooting in public set in, many
chose a more anonymous boost to their morale, thrusting their arms through
holes cut into a wooden partition, offering their identity cards in return
for a fix from an unseen hand. If anyone needed more, then there were
self-service plastic bags filled with heroin solution that dangled from the
rafters to which customers hooked themselves up, absorbing a few drops
before passing the tube to the next in line. And then when veins clotted or
collapsed, when it became too difficult to find a vessel, when your arms,
legs, feet and groin could no longer bear another puncture, quacks were
there to slit open your scalp and sprinkle heroin powder into your wound.
Only dawn exposed the debris of Hpakant, lying face down in the
alleys, waiting to be thrown into the flooded shafts, to be sunk in jungle
graves or burned like rubbish. For those who survived the night, it was to
the pits that they returned, side by side, knee-deep in mud, manhandling
steel staves that we could barely lift. And as they passed the human
detritus from the night before, it seemed incredible that none of them were
wise to the great jade lie.
Hpakant is Burma's black heart, drawing hundreds of thousands of
people in with false hopes and pumping them out again, infected and broken.
Thousands never leave the mines, but those who make it back to their
communities take with them their addiction and a disease provincial doctors
are not equipped to diagnose or treat. The UN and WHO have now declared the
pits a disaster zone, but the military regime still refuses to let any
international aid in.
To order a copy of Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark's book about the
jade industry, Stone of Heaven , for pounds 17 plus p&p (rrp pounds 20),
call The Observer books service on 0870 066 7989. Published by Weidenfeld &
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