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Life: Between hell and the Stone of

The Observer
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 
of Burma

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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