Dien BienChildhood smelt of opium, the absence of parents due to imprisonment, many children in the border areas grow up with two choices: drop out of school to work in the fields, or cross the border to get married.
One early morning at the end of June 2019, Ly Xe Me wrapped her hair, wore a bag, walked out of the house with a wall and thatched roof on the highest mountain of Ta Ko Ki village. The youngest son rubbed his eyes and ran after asking where his mother was going. “Mom went to the other side to go to the market, come back.”
Ha Nhi woman’s market trip, it turns out, lasted two years.
She took with her two million dong, which is also all her possessions in the house, tore up the forest and walked one day to Laos to buy opium. As soon as he returned to our land, the border guards caught him.
My husband has been addicted to opium for decades. Since the day she brought more liver cancer, the forbidden drug not only satisfied every time she had a seizure, but also helped her husband forget the pain. Me’s three children can eat white rice for 10 days, but her husband can’t go a day without medicine. Me’s “marketing” trips, therefore, were as familiar to her as going to the fields.
Me was sentenced to 20 months in prison for illegally possessing 143 grams of opium. Me’s trial, like many similar ones at the Muong Nhe District Court, included an interpreter because she could not speak Mandarin.
In 2019, in Dien Bien, there was a drug arrest every 15 hours, most of which were ethnic minorities. The report of the same year of the Committee for Ethnic Minorities, said that this province has the rate of ethnic minority people addicted to drugs 5 times higher than the national average. Of the nearly 10,000 drug addicts in the province, 41% are Thai, 29% are Hmong.
The provinces leading the country in terms of high drug addiction rate, such as Dien Bien, Cao Bang, and Son La Lai Chau, are also among the 10 poorest provinces, most of which are northern border provinces. Muong Nhe, the poorest district of the poorest province in the country, 6 out of 10 households are poor.
While drugs put Me in prison, it also pushed her children out of their last safe place: School.
It has been two days since Me was away, Vu Go Tru has no one to cook for her, there is no rice in the kitchen, half of an old pumpkin her mother left behind from the previous day is lying in the kitchen. His brother and sister are all on the field, the 60-year-old father is still lying in his room because of pain and craving for cigarettes.
“Are you coming back soon, Dad?”
“Do not know”
After three similar conversations, a 9-year-old boy, holding a bowl, ran to a neighbor’s house to ask for a back. Except put it at the head of the bed for Dad, then carried the bag down to the school.
Like most ethnic semi-boarding schools, Sin Thau Primary School holds students back with meals “with a tong”. Students eat and sleep three meals at school from Monday to Friday afternoon. Returning to school on Sunday, children from well-to-do families ride motorbikes by their parents, pick vegetables and bundles of firewood to contribute to the school’s kitchen.
The boy Min often went to school empty-handed. Even when my mother was still at home, every meal in the family’s family only had white rice, chan and Ha Nhi tea. Money from selling chickens, selling vegetables, and wages from planting forests are all used to buy opium for my father.
Min’s attempt to find her mother dragged on for several more weeks. The boy did not dare to ask his father more. After many years, Tru realized that when his father had a drug attack, he should not come near, easily scolded.
Thirteen rooftops of Ta Ko Ki village are among the wild anemone bushes covering the muddy dirt road. They are all Ha Nhi people, have a kinship relationship, if they don’t have the Vu family name, they have the Ly family name. All of these people either didn’t know where Me was, or knew but couldn’t tell Min.
“Do you know where your mother is?”, in response to my persistent question, that night, my brother Min, a 9th grader, just turned around, lying facing the wall, said quickly: “Dad told me to skip school. You can go to school tomorrow, you don’t have to wait.”
Without her mother, Min was no longer eagerly waiting for Friday afternoons to go home as usual. Before the day Mother left, she took off the towel hanging on the clothesline outside the kitchen. Every time he walked home, Min stopped from afar to look at the clothesline. He just hopes the towel is no longer there, meaning that his mother is back.
Over time, the boy also got used to the thought that his mother would not return, and gradually got used to the absence of his brother. From the day he moved to the countryside, his sister got married, the only family connection left when he returned home was only his father.
On the earthen wall in the middle of the Tru’s house, there are still two certificates of merit hanging for the head of Vu Vu Sinh village for his achievements in forest fire prevention. But that was 5 years ago. Since his wife’s absence, Mr. Sinh has not smoked opium, almost just lies under a blanket, lying in a drug-hungry hunger and waiting for his relatives to give him what he wants to eat.
On the evening of November 16, last year, Tru’s brother suddenly appeared at the door of the boarding house of Sin Thau Secondary School to pick him up. The people of the whole Ta Ko Ki village gathered at the Tru’s house. Mr. Vu Vu Sinh only had time to reach out and touch his youngest son’s face for the last time and breathed his last.
Losing both parents in less than two years, in addition to sadness, the boy Min also had a vague fear. When his mother left, his brother had to leave school. Now that his father is dead, can he continue to go to school?
Twelve years ago, Chang A Minh followed his parents from Sin Chai commune, Tua Chua district to Muong Nhe. Selling his fields, leaving his house, and clothes for his wife and children to carry, but for his opium smoking pipe, Mr. Key was determined to carry the embankment with his own hand as a heirloom.
After two days of sailing upstream of Da Giang, through Muong Lay district, the first thing Mr. Key did when he arrived at Chung Chai commune, Muong Nhe district was to run into his relative’s bed, recline the lamp and light up opium.
In the late 1980s, in Tua Chua’s report, Mr. Key’s hometown was still a famous poppy granary throughout the Northwest, covering an area of thousands of hectares, growing tens of tons of opium every year. The golden age has passed, but by the middle of this year, there are still some of Mr. Key’s compatriots who were caught with a poppy garden planted in front of their house, or secretly sold it to “an unknown person”.
The 40-year-old man has the appearance of an old man, doesn’t remember when he was addicted, only knows his life, his father’s life and now begins to haunt all eight of his children.
Of the few images Chang A Minh still remembers about his childhood, the most profound is the image of his father lying at the table.
Minh’s old teacher once visited Mr. Tiet’s opium bed and advised him to quit smoking and take care of his children. He just lowered his head and replied, “If you die, then you will end your addiction”.
For all these years, Minh did not see his mother dare to open her mouth to give half a word of advice to her father, just dragging her children out, wandering up the fields alone, picking bamboo shoots alone, cooking wine, repairing the house, taking care of children alone.
During her school days, every time A Minh went to a boarding school, Mrs. Tieu hid her husband, trimmed cabbage in the garden, sold it in the market far away, and then put five or ten thousand dong in her child’s hands. Like the Tru family, the spending in the Ming dynasty must be prioritized for “medicine”. Chang A Minh finished the fifth grade, then left by himself to stay at home to help his mother, under Minh there were 5 younger brothers.
According to a report by UNDP and the Ethnic Minority Commission in 2017, surveying 39 ethnic groups, only about 60% of adults can read and write in general.
The Hmong belong to the group of ethnic groups with the highest illiteracy rate in the country, and at the same time have the largest disparity between male and female literacy rates.
Minh’s oldest sister is 26 years old, never going to school. The young girl saw a stranger coming and ran away because she couldn’t speak Mandarin, but could only laugh and shake her head when she heard it.
When she was still on Tua Chua, once curiously opening her brother’s book to peek, the girl was caught by her father and beaten until her hand was purple without understanding what the reason was. Her husband is a young man from the same village, addicted to drugs since before getting married, usually, if he is not high, he is drunk.
But the two sisters soon proved that they wanted to live differently like their mother and older sister, free from the men who were addicted to drugs.
In 2015, Chang Thi Dang, then 17 years old, ran away from home. “It’s so hard at home, I can’t stand it,” the girl confessed to her neighbor, asking her family not to look. Three years later, the third daughter of Mr. Tie also ran away from home at the age of 15.
The head of Tan Phong village is afraid to share the number of addicts in the land he is in charge of, but he does not hide his concern about the exiled girls at the age where they should still be able to play and learn.
The girls in the English village once left because of lack of food, because their father scolded them, because they were angry with their lovers. No one knows how their journey out of exile is, until they feel stable enough to find a way to contact their families on their own. But there are also people who never contact again.
Dang’s first call to his parents was three years later, informing him that he had married a merchant, in China, had just given birth to a son and had enough to eat and clothe. In the spring of two years ago, following the instructions of his sister, Minh went to the other side of the A Pa Chai border gate, waiting for a person wearing a blue umbrella jacket and a black motorbike to come pick him up. That’s Minh’s brother-in-law. After three days of visiting, Minh was given 500 yuan by his sister with a message that he would visit his parents when his two children were old enough.
Mr. Tieu has been living in the fields for a few years now, besides opium, he now has a new concern, the yuan exchange rate and looks forward to the first day of the month to see if his daughter sends money back. How old are the rest of the children in the family, what grade are they in, or are they still in school, he agreed.
With a large natural area and a large land fund, Muong Nhe district has been chosen by tens of thousands of Mong people like Mr. Key’s family from all over the surrounding areas as a new residence.
After the great free migration in the past 10 years, Muong Nhe is inherently poor, carrying more drug addicts. The circle of deforestation and bluffing has also been repeated for many years. In 2020, in Muong Nhe district, an average of 4 cases of deforestation were detected and arrested every month. District leaders confessed that “sometimes they know but don’t want to arrest them, because they are all women, and one prisoner is nearly a dozen helpless children”.
Despite the natural potential, tourism still has a lot, but district party secretary Nguyen Quang Hung said that Muong Nhe district’s budget revenue for the whole year was only VND 18 billion, equivalent to the amount of money Hoan Kiem district collected in 15 hours.
After this 18 billion, most of them returned to nearly 6,000 poor households in Muong Nhe in the form of rice support to help alleviate hunger, give gifts on Tet holiday, support to build resettlement houses for free immigrant villages and repair them. schools.
In many struggles to escape addiction, poverty, and illiteracy, Secretary Hung many times heard delegations lament to him, Muong Nhe also has the westernmost point, the border marker zero on A Pa Chai border gate. There are also mountain peaks that hunt clouds, terraced fields, lovely people and intact ethnic minority identities, why few people come.
“If they don’t come to me, I will come to them,” the Secretary told himself. Over the past two years, hundreds of young workers from Muong Nhe district, accompanied by district leaders like Mr. Hung, crossed 600 km to receive jobs in large industrial zones. Among them, there is A Minh.
Minh refused to become another “Mr. Key” in the future, but also did not like his sister’s invitation to stay in China. “No matter what, I also want to be on my land.”
Minh is 20 years old this year, and is with his wife waiting for a new member to be born. This child, even though he was a Mong, was born in the poorest district in the country, but Minh said, he would definitely not let him drop out of school to work in the fields, or get entangled in opium.
On the last day of December last year, Ly Xe Me was released from prison. Stepping to the door of the house, seeing her husband’s altar, she knew that he had just died for 40 days. The boy except now is tall and taciturn and his face has gradually hardened. He stood staring at his mother, who was holding her leg, apologizing, but said nothing, just bent down to hug her back, inhaling her mother’s scent.
The next afternoon, Truc’s brother, the white shirt he had thrown away from the corner of the house for two years, put it on, then put on a cloth bag containing books, and stood in front of his mother: Tomorrow, I will go back to school.
The next morning, the two brothers followed the dirt road, which was blooming with yellow wild sunflowers, and went down to the school together.
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