Through opium fields

February 20, 2012

By Damir Sagolj

She killed her husband by giving him six daughters. In the land of warriors, drug lords and brutal highlanders – he wanted a son. And then he just died disappointed, Moe Mohm said, leaving her to grow opium and raise girls.

By the fireplace, obviously the central point of a household high in the mountains of the Shan state, Moe sits and talks to us in a frantic combination of laughter and tears. She is an ethnic Pa-O and wears a towel above her pretty face with teeth ruined by betel nut. Only a glance at her hands reveals real age and hard work in fields. The house seems to be okay – humble but well kept and clean.

I take a few pictures just to get her accustomed to the camera. There will be a turn in her story as she talks through her life to the first journalists she has ever met and I want to capture the moment when it comes. It might take a while, but I know how to wait.

Here is another episode to think about, a real one with very real people. Not long ago, in a different country with similar problems, two colleagues, both photographers (it could be me), drove to a refugee center to join genocide survivors watching the TV appearance of one of those accused for the killings at a war crimes court. They knew it would be a strong moment. As they approached the village, one of them says to the other who is driving “stop by a grocery shop, I want to buy onion”. The other one, with a huge question mark above his head asks “why” to get a straight answer – to make a woman cry, to make our picture better. “WHF, what about moral and ethics, are you out of your mind“, argues the driver. The answer is another difficult question and makes you think – is it easier with onion or to ask all the questions, to torture and make the woman go through the horror of her past just to get that tear, only to make a picture better, more real?

How do you feel, I ask my colleague who sits next to me as we interview Moe Mohm, knowing the moment will come if we ask the right questions?

He has no answer, I have no answer. Easy way out: we should not be giving answers; we are journalists who only ask and report the answer. So not true.

“Things were okay until now” she said and starts crying. Police had destroyed her poppy field, the main crop in the village and she watched silently. They just came with sticks and in no time her life turned into the unknown. “Now I don’t know what to do, how to feed my children”.

I film it on video, her statement and the cry. Is it real? Very. It is called the interview, to hell with it.

What we witness is a new policy by the government in the region. They’ve been trying or “trying” for years to halt or minimize opium production. It didn’t work – the fields soon flourish again or the local militia would fire weapons at police as they approach opium-producing villages.

Now, there is a cease-fire. In a country torn apart by ethnic and every other kind of division, the cease-fire is a must if you want to move from zero, from the dark ages into the promising new Myanmar that optimists see on the horizon. Very simply – the militias are funding their struggle by producing and selling opium and if you want to stop it you have to offer something good enough.

Peace? Not enough. If villagers do not produce opium or work in opium fields (where they are paid three or four times more than for work in a potato field) they don’t have money to buy food. You need to subsidize it and not to punish people without giving them a chance for something else. It is crime, we all know that, but we have to, just like always and everywhere, look at the wider context.

Here is a very simple situation – farmers grow garlic. It goes well, they produce a lot. But, the reality of doing business in such remote places is brutal – it turns out that the transportation cost for their garlic to the nearest market is higher that the value of the crop itself. They let it rot in the field; it is not even worth the effort.

Their only chance is to grow opium. The market comes to you – a Chinese-speaking buyer on a motorcycle pays cash on the spot. No need to worry about bad roads, the danger, or the transportation costs. Just keep it coming and all six daughters will have food and school and the widow will even have enough to offer to Gods for protection.

We came to the fields – armed with cameras, recorders and not-so-high expectations – following a UNODC delegation to help solve the equation with more unknown variables than available options on the ground. They are experienced; they’ve been to Afghanistan and elsewhere and they know how to do it. The UN will work with the government to help people survive after sticks and those noisy weed-whackers (the new weapon of war!) bring the poppy fields down. Good luck.

Besides all the knowledge, all the experience and the aid available from donors, it all looks so complicated that they will need a bit of luck too. The government – even officials are calling it the new government, distancing themselves from years of iron rule by junta – seem very determined and push the destruction beyond expectations.

In only the last three months they have destroyed four times more opium fields than in 2011 and have no plans to stop.

They know that the road to peace and a new Myanmar goes through the poppy fields.

What do the villagers say? Here we are now, at the Buddhist temple in a distant village controlled by the local militia that signed the cease-fire only two weeks ago – they are happy to pose for pictures and I have to remember what they are called as I had never heard of them before. Villagers gather to listen to policemen and UN officials announcing the new policy and promising aid once the poppies are gone. Monks sit aside – a bit like a jury. Outside the temple, government forces secure the area; novice Buddhist monks chase something potato-shaped that is suppose to be a football.

It is difficult to read faces, as they show almost no emotions. Tough highlanders are not easy to figure out no mater how good my camera and photography is. They listen first and will decide their moves later.

I had no high expectations for this trip – it is going to be controlled and I won’t be able to do what I want. I just follow the UN and police, as many times before and react to what is offered. But, very soon the trip goes well beyond the expectations – we go to places never visited by foreign, and probably any other, press before. We witness history being made, deals being offered.

I take pictures of people as they were told growing opium – what was their history, culture and way of living – is not going to be possible any more. The concept of legal and illegal is a very strange concept here in the mountains of Shan. They know only to have or not to have enough to survive. And they know the force. One of those two things will make them change.

The opium is their main cash crop; it is also the only medicine they have. It’s not going to cure, but it helps with pain.

I shoot a lot and I like what I see, if I can distance myself from the problem and focus on reporting only. It happened before that I have many (for agency standards possibly too many) photos of people looking straight into my camera but I don’t mind. I’m a part of the story, not a fly on the wall, and they see me just as one of the alien people who came to change their lives, to offer something else.

One of the better, if not the best, pictures from this part of the world that I remember is from Philip Blenkisop of Hmong guerillas on their knees reacting to him and the other journalist as they came to see them in the jungle – thousands of Hmongs were hiding in the wild for decades waiting for their former US friends who promised help after they pulled out from Indochina. When Philip and the other guy showed up, they thought they were Americans who came to save them.

There is nothing wrong with that gaze, it is real and it can make a viewer uncomfortable.  It should. The whole take I have here could be a nice National Geographic style reportage from just another distant place if those eyes don’t ask questions and for understanding.

I try to make pictures as simple as possible on this trip – no aggressive composition, no funky angles of blurred, moody shots. I feel responsibility, and I’m glad I can still feel it, to report straight forward from the place or event never seen before. The style is important, the signature is recognizable but I have problems insisting on the something if it’s not appropriate for the given story.  Ethics? Possibly. I’ll keep it simple on this one, try to capture the reality without interfering much. I step back, I shoot straight and wide, let the subjects speak for themselves.

If I overproduce images, will people believe? Yes, the poetry can beat history, Aristotle would say, but for that we need to have information first, the foundation for the art, the basics before upgrade.

What do we really know about Moe Mohm and her problems? A widow who struggles to raise kids and cries when asked about the future – we see that everywhere, unfortunately. Will my pictures help to understand the wider context on this one? Probably not but at least I’ll make them look simpler and more real instead of painting on something we know very little about.

Back to Yangon, the city that seems to be waking up from years of forced hibernation I see people selling pirated copies of a new movie about the life of the country’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi – a good and promising sign, unimaginable only a short time ago. But, then I remember that I haven’t seen a single image of her in all the opium villages we visited. There were some of her father, General Aung San, there were even some of an Italian football team but none of the Lady. Maybe the news travels slowly in this part of world or maybe the reality in Myanmar is more complex than the one we know in an over-simplified world of good and bad?

Damir Sagolj

One comment

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What an eye opener. Thank you very much for this story. I’m preparing for my firs visit to Myanmar and it’s stories like this that make me want to dig deeper, see further, listen harder. Best form Bangkok.

Posted by MaciekKlimowicz | Report as abusive