A Secret Hell on Earth
Text and photography by Eric Pasquier
Behind Halong Bay, a Vietnamese tourist paradise, thousands of miners dig, sweat and choke underground.
Watched over by the army, these men, women and children literally scratch out a living.
The coal they reclaim from the earth is used everywhere in Vietnam and exported elsewhere. In these wretched mines, where working conditions have not changed for over a century, the past has overtaken the present.
A man who seems no more than a child appears suddenly in the gloom of the mine.
His face is white beneath the soot, his gaze feverish as he smiles.
The mine is still bathed in darkness but machinery can be heard pounding away in the bowels of the earth. The flanks of mineshaft No.6 are open to the sky, a gigantic amphitheatre draped in black and – ironically – only a short distance from Halong Bay and its peaceful, emerald green waters.
Men, women and children slave away daily like convicts, digging for coal.
The Cam Pha mines, once Tonkin collieries, is a huge area where 60,000 workers dig for Vietnam’s biggest coal deposits that, until 1954, were exploited by the French.
Mine No.6 is the biggest of them all, employing 4,500 workers who are often the last in a long line of miners; an inglorious heritage. Exploitation of the coal, once traded for weapons from the Soviets during the war, has remained unchanged since the beginning of the Twentieth Century. Everything is sacrificed to the army. Foreigners – especially photographers – are barred from the underground pits, but the sights at the open-air mines speak volumes about the life the miners must endure.
Huge Soviet diggers excavate the coal, removing two tons at a time. Old French trollies carry the coal up to the quarry surface. A sentry checks everything that leaves or enters the tunnel leading to the pit. A shaky lift takes men 100 metres below ground where they have to walk for an hour before they finally reach the coal.
Hung looks around 15 years old but says he is 17. Sent into the pit to replace a trolley ‘pusher’, he is happy to emerge alive at the end of another day. The danger is ever-present and the conditions are appalling: the lack of air and light gradually weakens the body, the wages are a pittance, child labour is normal here.
“I have no other choice,” says Hung.
The coal is used throughout Vietnam for heating and cooking, it is half as expensive as electricity, a kilo of coal costing roughly US$ 1.50.
Mine No.6 alone produces 4.5 million tons a year, 20% of which is exported to China and Europe. In Tonkin, especially in the Ha Long region, the mines are the only source of revenue for miners who earn between US$ 90 and US$ 125 a month.
Men and women start working in the pits around the age of 15. Wearing a big pointed hat, Hoa’s face is covered by a scarf or towel to protect her from the dust and acrid smell. She repairs machinery.
Other young girls bend over the black earth and sort the pieces of anthracite piled in baskets and carried on their heads or on the ends of bamboo poles. Others build and repair roads.
They are brave, their beauty faded, worn away by the dust and worry of finding food for their families.
Exhaustion and illness have prematurely aged the soot-covered faces of these people. A child lies on a bench sick with typhoid fever. These people don’t even enjoy the appalling conditions under which miners in Europe worked a century ago – miners who, ironically, fought for socialist ideals. But this is Vietnam… harassed by deprivation, supervised day and night by armed soldiers, these miners seem incapable of any anger or revolt.
Buses take the miners to work every morning in the district of Quang Minh where 80% of the population have their lives dictated by the coal. There are three eight-hour shifts. Lunch consists of dried fish, rice or soup, and is taken at 11.30AM. Work starts again at 12.30PM. In Vung Duc, the “young people’s mine”, 16-year-olds are paid between US$ 50 and US$ 60 a month.
Women like Hoa scratch the earth with forks for scraps, to use for themselves or to sell in the village. This low-grade coal is not watched over by the soldiers, so Hoa hides a few lumps of coal in her tatty old shirt before continuing with the heavy baskets, each containing 25 to 30 kgs of coal, and carrying them to the skip. Children also carry coal to the trucks leaving for Cam Pha harbour where it is loaded onto boats.
In the blackened village of Vung Duc, women crush the coal with an iron roller to obtain samples to show buyers. A curtain rain has fallen outside, the alleyways become black and slippery. Some men stand barefoot in the mud, washing in the rain. They don’t talk much, even when evening comes and the day’s work is over. They play cards and smoke water pipes to forget their lives in the cages underground.
Just as in other mining villages, Vung Duc attracts people from the poorest provinces. People here live in crowded conditions in bamboo huts, all year round. They eat and sleep surrounded by coal. When the Vietnamese and Chinese boats arrive in Cam Pha harbour, the men load the precious ore. Each time one of the rusty old boat leaves, it is pay-day for the labourers. But the exploitation of coal, still a growing industry, will remain unchanged for many years to come: the reserves are estimated at two billion tons.
Copyright © Eric Pasquier
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