Gold miners battle guns and HIV in central Vietnam

By Tien Hung, Kim Thuy   April 16, 2016 | 10:44 pm PT
Known as the land of gold, the mountainous districts of Quang Nam province have lured thousands of local people and migrants from all over the country to chase their dreams of making their millions.

“Gold miners in the province come from all walks of life. Most of them get addicted once they start striking gold,” Tung, a former gold miner in Phuoc Hoa district, said.


A gold mine in the central province of Quang Nam, which is known as the land of gold.

The former gold digger worked in a gold mine for 10 years. The mine was hidden away from the outside world, but became known to the public following three deaths in 2013.

It takes at least 12 hours from the nearest town to reach the mine.

Hundreds of gold miners stay in the mine for months at a time, and many have not made contact with the outside world for a year.

The owner of the gold mine provides the miners with food and basic materials. Nobody is allowed to leave the mine or enter without permission, and security guards patrol the site 24/7.

“Owners usually hire notorious gangs to guard the mines. Every dispute is solved by their own rules, not by national law, and shootings can occur on a daily basis,” an illegal miner who has worked in the gold mine for 10 years said.

“Gold miners have died in tunnel collapses, been beaten to death, been shot or died from HIV. Many people have died but authorities are oblivious to the situation,” he said.


A tent set up by security guards at a gold mine

In the gold mine, drugs are sold openly, so most miners resort to drugs to help them relax after a hard day at work.

Statistics in 2015 showed that the province had 800 HIV cases, the majority of whom contracted the virus while working in illegal gold mines.

Many mine owners hand out savage punishments like in the Medieval period to those who do not obey the rules or work efficiently. Many have tried to escaped but most of them have been arrested again.


Police track down an illegal gold mine

In 2014, Pham Van Hao, and Pham Van Cuong, successfully escaped from a gold mine with the help of local people.

The two young miners said that they came from a poor family in Thanh Hoa. They did not go to school as the family could not afford to pay for daily meals or their tuition fees.

Their desire to help their poor families made them ignore the numerous dangers and join a group of 40 people, some of whom were under 15, to come to Quang Nam in search of gold.

“I received a salary of VND 3.5 million ($156) per month, and if I worked hard, I could earn VND 4 million ($178). I only received my salary every six months. The work was hard and dangerous so I and 10 other men quit after a month,” Hao said to local police.

After walking about 40 kilometers from the mine, the group met another mine owner and agreed to work for him

“Within 10 days at the new gold mine, all of us were depressed and got sick. Despite that, we were forced to work. If not, we would be beaten. We decided to escape,” Hao said.

The owner of the mine chased the group, and many are still missing. Hao had to make his way through the forest for hours before being helped by a local.

“We were beaten all the time and did not receive our salaries at all. For over a year, we had to work in a tunnel at 1,000 meters deep but there was no ventilation system. Death could come at any moment […],” a gold miner who escaped from the mine said,

All the authorities have done so far is destroy the illegal gold miners’ tools and machinery.

“The gold mines are hidden deep in the forests and the miners are very poor so we cannot impose any administrative fines. All we can do is destroy their tools and machinery. It is very difficult to catch gold mine owners as miners are scared to disclose any information about them, Colonel Le Van Hong from Quang Nam police force told VnExpress.

According to Quang Nam’s Department of Natural Resources and Environment, at least 54 people have died in gold mines over the past seven years, most of them from tunnel collapses.

“The real number must be higher as most accidents go unreported. Mine owners try to cover up any fatalities to avoid getting in trouble. It is very difficult for authorities as gold mines lie deep in the forests,” a department leader said.

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