Cycles of trauma

A story told by Seng Raw

My family all come from the jade mines region. I have many relatives in and around the Hpakant township close to the jade mines. None of my family is well educated. From my parents’ generation, my father, from what I can recall, couldn’t read or write, and his brother and sister were only educated to primary level education. They all worked as farmers. My father’s family was relatively well off when compared to others. My grandfather was village chairman. When my grandfather passed away, he had enough in his estate to be able to divide his buffaloes and cows between his two sons. So, their wealth was in land and livestock, not money.

Now there is only my aunt left from my father’s family and I don’t see her often, even though she is not far away.

My aunt used to do some trading as well as work on the farm. If you wanted to sell any goods in Hpakant at that time, you had to walk along the path through the forest to get there. She also used to do some jade business before the companies came and when the jade was all dug by hand. My father and uncle just concentrated on the farm and made a living that way; they never got involved in the jade mines.

My mother passed away several months ago. I was close to her but not to any of my other relatives. Her side of the family comes from Tanai and they were also farmers. It was a big family with seven children, but only three of them are still alive. None of the children went to school apart from my mother. They couldn’t read or write and just worked on the farm, but my mother, the youngest daughter, was sent to school and trained as a nurse. She worked in the hospital in Myitkyina. They weren’t as well off as my father’s family, but overall they had a comfortable life because they had land they could farm.

Like most Kachin at that time, the families of my parents arranged for them to get married. In fact, my mother wasn’t originally the one who was going to get married to my father. My father’s family had arranged the dowry and was preparing for their son to marry my mother’s older sister, but it turned out that she already had a boyfriend, a soldier in the KIA [Kachin Independence Army], and so she ran away to avoid getting married to my father. She had quite a lively character! But my mum had a simpler character and so it was agreed that my mother would marry my father instead. So, they got married because of the arrangements between the families and not because they loved each other.

My grandfather was a very forceful character and none of his children could refuse his wishes. It seems my father also had a sweetheart but my grandfather wouldn’t let him marry the one he loved. My parents’ marriage wasn’t happy. I don’t think my father liked my mother and he used to beat her badly when he was angry. They split up when I was eight years old but remained officially married until they were separated by death.

My father used to drink a lot and when he was drunk, he would become very quarrelsome and violent. When he wasn’t drunk, he used to love us, his children.

My father used to drink a lot and when he was drunk he would become very quarrelsome and violent. When he wasn’t drunk, he used to love us, his children. I have five siblings but one of my sisters and both of my brothers have passed away.

I was told that, when I was born, I was very cute. I used to blame myself for the beatings my mother received because one of the issues that would trigger this violence was that I didn’t really look like him. My elder brother and I don’t have the same dark skin tone, and I am a little bit tall and a bit fat, and so he said that my brother and I were not his children. He used to say that my mother was not faithful to him. Because of this, he would beat my mother, and I would be beaten often, too; but he didn’t beat my brother. When I was little, if the neighbours said that I was very cute; I would ask them not to say that because my mother would be beaten. Sometimes we tried to intervene to stop him beating her. I remember one time when I was eight, he even stabbed her in her thigh with his ‘Dah’ [traditional sword], which Kachin people use for farming. He was blind drunk and it was only because my brother was there that something even worse didn’t happen. Later in my life, my mother would also tell me frequently that I was one of the reasons that she would be beaten. She was quite simple and I don’t think she really knew what she was saying. My father would look for any opportunity to criticise my mother and to beat her.

My father used to believe in animist nat or spirits, but then our family converted to Christianity. My siblings and I were Catholics and other family members were Baptists. But I think sometimes when he was blind drunk that, although he had rejected animism, the spirits were still bothering him because he wouldn’t comply with their wishes and make offerings.

One day, when my father was drunk, my mother took me and my sister and she ran away with us.

My father always said that the reason she did this was because she was being unfaithful with other guys. The fact that she only took me and one other sister caused problems with my siblings. She left one of my sisters behind as she believed that my brother, who was looking after the farm, would need someone at home to feed him and make sure that he had enough rations when he was working. My sister was left behind with a sense of injustice and she developed a very cold relationship with my mother, even when she became an adult and had her own family. She refused to have much contact with my mother after that. My sister thought that my mother took me because she must love me the most.

My mother ran away back to her parents several times, but she was always sent back to my father. The family on my mother’s side felt that they had to send her back because the arrangements between the family were fixed and dowries had been paid. My father’s family never had to come and fetch her; she was always just sent back.

The last time I saw my father was when I was 12. At that time, when I went back to the village to see him, again people told me how much he used to beat my mother. My father took a second wife according to a tradition we have: when my father’s brother passed away, he had the responsibility to marry his brother’s wife. When my father died, he died in her arms. My mother passed away recently. Now both of my parents have passed away and I don’t want to be involved in the village anymore. I used to rely on my mother but now she is gone, I feel that I am just wandering and flowing in the current.

I remember when my mother grabbed me to go to Tanai to her parents’ house, it was a really difficult journey, and I became very ill. I cried a lot and my mother almost left me on the road while she went in search of her younger sister to stay with. I cried the whole night. The next morning, we decided to go to Kamaing where there were some more relatives. You could only travel there by boat and people would take it in turns to carry me on their backs until we got to our destination. My mother registered me at the local school and then she went to another village to stay with some other relatives and where she could do some trading.

Morning market in Tanai
Morning market in Tanai, Kachin State. Photo by Kachinland Research Centre (KRC)

So, I was just left in Kamaing. No one else from the family came to look after me or to give me money.

When I needed to pay for extra tuition at the school, I couldn’t pay and I was so embarrassed. Over time, I realised there was some water spinach around the house where I was staying and so I used to pick it and sell it.

This helped me to pay for school and also to buy rice. Gradually the water spinach ran out and so I decided to go to the place where my brother was living and ask him for help. He gave me some rice, but he didn’t give me any money. I still blame my brother for that. My brother was fairly well off and he could have given me some money. I also blame his wife; my sister-in-law is really immoral. They had cows and would get about five new calves every year; they also had a lot of paddy fields. But they never supported me. I think my brother had the same diseased blood as my father when he is drunk. My brother later died in prison. He started dealing drugs and was put in prison for that. While he was locked up, my sister-in-law had a relationship with a KIA officer, which my brother heard about. One day, he ran away from the work camp he was in, outside the prison, and shot his wife’s lover dead. He did it openly where people could see him clearly so he was rearrested. He was sentenced to death by hanging, but he was beaten to death first in the prison. The family had to pay a lot of compensation according to customary law and so we lost all the cows, which were each worth about 30,000 kyats at the time. The KIA could have handled the case differently, but we didn’t know anything about this legal process at the time and so we lost all the cows. I still bear a grudge because of that.

When I was in the third grade, I sent a letter to my sister. I could no longer bear the hardship anymore and so I went to stay with her. But it was difficult. She had a bad relationship with me and my mother. I went to another village for Grade 4 but the school only went up to that grade. So, I would have to go back to Kamaing to progress to Grade 5. But I couldn’t stand going to school any more in Kamaing because they used to beat me with a broom; my life there was so hard. That is why I stopped my education at the fourth grade.

I went to see my aunt in a nearby village, where she and her family are farmers. I was crying because I had been beaten with a broom. She thought it would be best if she taught me how to plant paddy and then I could work as a day labourer. That was in the time when they introduced the 200 kyat note. I have worked as a casual and day labourer ever since. My cousin is just one month older than me and so it was decided that we would both stop school at fourth grade together and my aunt would teach us what we needed to know.

I just continued planting and reaping paddy and never thought about doing anything else. I was paid 200 kyats per day. I did that until I was 16. Occasionally, a group of us would go to the shallow ponds and catch fish by bailing out the water. We just went from one job to another. Eventually, I went to the village where my mother had been living and stayed with her.

Close to where my mother was living there was a KIA post. They would often seize young people from the area, probably two out of every four people coming from nearby villages, although their parents would sometimes take them back later. It was a problem for us because, at that time, the KIA needed more women soldiers. Although I was younger than all my friends, I looked more mature than them and couldn’t dress like them, and often the soldiers would tease me. I would respond angrily and sometimes get into trouble. My brother didn’t want me to stay there because he was worried I would be taken by the KIA for military training, but my mother said that one of the commanders was a relative and this would help me to avoid it and she gave me a ring that I could give to him.

It was around this time that I met my first husband. The relative I was living with needed to move and I was worried that I would have to move too, and so I plotted how to avoid that outcome. My first husband didn’t like me but he had an affair with me secretly – his family had a shop on the opposite side of the road to my relative. My uncle, who I lived with, didn’t like him. Still, we got married and we had two children, but it was really bad, and I was in so much trouble.

As my husband was the youngest son, we had to live with his family. My father-in-law used to be a soldier in the Burmese army and he would curse me because I couldn’t speak Burmese.

He treated me badly. He also encouraged my husband’s drug habit. Whenever my father-in-law wanted my husband to go and work on the family farm or bring goods from the river, he would offer him money to do it, but my husband would refuse to take it. He would only go if he were given drugs and so my father-in-law gave him drugs. Because of this, we didn’t have any money. I didn’t like it but when I complained, my father-in-law would slap me. Lots of my husband’s relatives were drug users.

Mine workers Hpakant, Myanmar
Mine workers in Hpakant, Kachin State. Photo by Kachinland Research Centre (KRC)

I was beaten so much because of this drug issue. My husband used to beat me a lot, mainly when I tried to interrupt his drug taking. The family also wouldn’t allow me to cut my hair. My husband used to plait it and dye it and then he would loop my hair around his hand and beat me with it. My hair fibres became ruined because of it.

My husband joined the KIA and went to the front line in Hkaya Mountain. It was there that he started injecting heroin.

He had two brothers but one brother had a broken hand and the other brother had many children to support, and so my husband joined up. I just waited for him, but by then I knew that he had a lesser [or second] wife too. I didn’t want to do any work in the family and I just bought rice for myself. As my husband was a soldier and on the front line, I was supposed to take rice to help support the army camp. We were supposed to take a bushel of rice to the camp every month. My husband’s friends went and took rice but I wasn’t interested in doing it. I just stayed away and fed the pigs and distilled liquor.

I think I am very headstrong and in the past I was very loud and rebellious, and could be rude to people. My mother told me before she died that I should not be too proud and outspoken but I think I am like this because I was never reprimanded or supported when I was a student. As the wife of a KIA soldier, I think I became even more fearless than I was before!

One time after my husband had left the KIA camp, a relative who was also his commander in the KIA and whose pigs I used to feed, bought some piglets from me. We agreed that they would pay 30,000 kyats. However, the next day, my husband told me he already asked for a 10,000 kyat advance from them, which he had spent on heroin. We quarrelled really badly and he beat me so much. In the past when we quarrelled, he would sometimes wait around for me and then beat me again, but this time I decided to leave. My children were still young, with a gap of just two years between them; my eldest son was just about to enter primary school. I wanted to take them with me very much, but I didn’t want my husband to follow me. My mother also didn’t like him at all and so I left my children and all the money I had with my sister-in-law, his first brother’s wife, to look after them. That’s when I started working in the opium cultivation sites, to provide money for my children.

When I moved to the new village, I started to drink more and more. Before this, although I would distil alcohol, I couldn’t drink it; but I missed my children and soon I found myself drinking a jug of liquor in a few minutes and getting drunk. I then also started to use drugs because I was very fat and I thought taking drugs would help me to lose weight. I wanted to wear jeans, but I didn’t dare to do so. I couldn’t wear skirts or short pants because I was very fat. With drug use, I soon became slim because I didn’t eat anything. So, I was able to wear whatever I wanted and I didn’t feel embarrassed or ashamed. Ever since then, I have used drugs. I also started smoking, but when I smoked cigarettes my lips became very dark. Some of the camp commanders from nearby told me that I should be put in the pigsty with the hogs because my lips were very dark.

The first time I tried to detoxify from formula [opium mixed with cough syrup], I had withdrawal effects for about three or four days. I suffered a lot. I lost body weight, and my face was thin. I couldn’t sleep the whole night. After that, I started going to the opium farms and used drugs there but this time I used black opium. There were many people there, both men and women, living and working on the farms. The farm guard cooked black opium and the workers didn’t have to pay the farm owner for it. They didn’t tell you that you had to use it, it is your choice, but I used black opium for as long as the opium cultivation lasted.

Using black opium was different to using formula. When I used formula, I didn’t want to speak a lot, but with black opium although at first I was dizzy with its smell, I was very happy. We positioned the long pipe with the black opium in the middle and formed a circle around it. Then, we chatted and took it in turns to take it. When we use formula, we don’t need friends to take it, but when we use black opium, people crowd together.

The people who cultivate the poppy are the bosses. We were the workers. Young boys and girls from Myitkyina also came and worked there. After we had scratched opium, we weren’t allowed to go back home until the poppy cultivation had finished. Even the opium owners didn’t leave from that point. When the cultivation had finished, people could leave, but no one was allowed to carry opium with them; we even had to throw away our clothes and leave them behind. There were a lot of checks at the check points in Tanai. Sometimes they would even check your little finger to see if you had a small cut from where you had scratched the poppy with a knife.

I worked in opium poppy farms in Tanai for a few seasons, and also in Tarung. Altogether I did it for about seven seasons. When I was away from the cultivation sites, I didn’t use opium, but when I was there, I used it all the time. I didn’t suffer very much when I stopped using it at the end of the season. It wasn’t like when I stopped heroin. When I stopped using heroin, I suffered a lot and got a very haggard face.

At first when I used heroin, I didn’t like the smell of it. I first tried it when I went to Hkun Sar Kong to scavenge for jade stones.

Hpakant jade mine
The Hpakant jade mines, Kachin State. Photo by Kachinland Research Centre (KRC)

Initially, I brought some black opium with me, which I hoped would last about a week while I worked there. When I ran out, I gave 15,000 kyats to the person who used to examine our jade stones for quality and asked him to buy some black opium for me. He knew the area and knew a lot about the drugs scene because he was a drug user. He went out but he didn’t get it for me as he said he didn’t want to cook black opium. I was craving the drug by this point, and he went out again at 12 o’clock but came back after he had already used heroin and told me again that he didn’t get it. I asked him again to go and find some for me. He went again and this time brought back some heroin and a syringe for me. I told him that I didn’t want it, but by the time it got to 3 o’clock and I couldn’t eat rice because I was craving the drug, I took some heroin and it gave me a bit of relief. I then used it again that night.

This is one of the differences between opium and heroin. If we use black opium just once, it is enough to last all day, but with heroin, you can’t stay without it for that long.

When I was staying in the mountain area with my first husband’s family, I became very ill. All the family used drugs and when I got sick, they would always suggest that I use some heroin to take away the pain. When I had a stomach ache, they would give me a little heroin. Later, if my back ached, I was told to use heroin and when I said I didn’t want to, they injected me with it anyway. As soon as they had injected me, the pain was relieved. The next morning, they injected me again and from that point, I started to become addicted. I didn’t inject heroin myself as I was afraid. My friends injected me. I put the heroin in the syringes, but I didn’t dare to inject it into my body myself. This happened for about four months and I started to use heroin more and more. Also, in the village where I lived, the Pat Jasan anti-drug movement had made it very difficult to gather to use a long pipe. After a while, I chose heroin because I liked the taste. Soon I was spending all the money that I needed for my children on drugs. When I had money, I would just sleep all day. But as soon as I got up, I would wonder how I could get the drug.

After the terrible time of my first marriage, I married another KIA soldier. We have two children and my youngest became addicted when she was in my womb. I was living with my mother-in-law at this time and she didn’t know I was using heroin at first. She is very godfearing. I used to use heroin secretly when I was lying under the mosquito net, and it used to make me yawn after I had used it.

I was using more than one bottle of heroin a day when I was pregnant. For the first months of the pregnancy I didn’t inject, but in the last month, I started to inject. I gave birth to my baby at 11 o’clock at night by caesarean section and after the baby was lifted from my womb, I yawned because I had exerted myself and I really craved heroin. I asked my husband if he could go into Kamaing and get me some drugs but it wasn’t so easy to find there and he couldn’t get any. I hadn’t used heroin since 3 o’clock and I was really craving it so much that I didn’t even want to stay with my baby. Also, the baby was crying a lot because she was aching and also craving heroin. She wouldn’t stop crying even when I breast-fed her. As I was craving the drug so much, I left the hospital and went out onto the street. At that time, my husband came back and took us home. Before we arrived at our house, I injected heroin in the house of our brother-in-law. My husband held our baby and when my baby sensed the smell of heroin from my body, she started to cry. After I had taken the heroin, I breast-fed my daughter. From that point, I knew she was addicted to the drug. Since then, we have had to be very careful with her because of this problem. In the mornings, I would suck in the smell of the heroin and blow it into my baby’s nose. She really knew the smell. Since then, as she has grown up, she has come to recognise it even more. When she smelled heroin, she approached us. She wouldn’t take my breast milk unless I had injected heroin. We really had to look after her because she could have died. My daughter has got emphysema because everyone uses drugs in the place where she lived with me and she inhaled the smoke and fumes. I became very thin, and initially my child was even thinner than me. I saw her recently and now she is very plump and her face is very big and full. At least I never beat my child.

While I was breast-feeding my baby, she was taken from me and then I came here to this rehab centre. This was two months ago and I have really missed her a lot in the last few days. I didn’t like that my relatives did that to me and I cried a lot at that time when they took her away, but now I really thank them. We were all in trouble, my children and myself. It is not that I don’t love my children, but I don’t have strong feelings of attachment.

I haven’t had close relationships with any relatives apart from my mother, and she has passed away. I won’t go and meet my children when I leave from here in case I feel too attached to them.

It was very difficult when I had to look after the two children I had with my first husband in the past. I had to look after them, so that is why I went to the opium farms for work.

Poppy farm
Poppy farm. Photo by Kachinland Research Centre (KRC)

But my relatives then were not helpful. They didn’t like it if I left my children with them. That’s why I don’t have a close relationship with my relatives. I don’t like my siblings. I am not upset about it because I have never got anything from them and I have never relied on them. I don’t have feelings of attachment to my children, my sisters or my brothers.

My two eldest children are now in the old village where their father, my first husband, looks after them. I don’t want to go back to that house or to meet my children there. Who would feel the most hurt? Me or them? My married life was unfortunate, but I wasn’t unfaithful and I always fulfilled my duties, unlike others.

Some women who need drugs sell their bodies, I have never done that even though men have asked. They assume that if you are a woman user that you will sell your body. I usually take drugs with men and that has probably made my use worse, but I don’t sell my body.

I have a room close to the main place where you buy drugs in the town, near the bridge, and I was staying there with my baby and my young child that I had with my second husband because it was easier to live near the place where I could get drugs when I had two young children than have to travel a long distance. I built the room myself. People see me with my children, one holding my hand and one on my back and they are surprised – the police and the dealers are surprised. Sometimes if my child cries or if I hit my child, some of the dealers will give me a large bottle of formula because they feel sorry for the child.

I only buy from the big dealers, and I also sell some drugs. One of the big dealers, a woman, built a place almost like a house with small holes in it. Yaba [methamphetamine pills] was sold from one side and heroin was sold from the other side. They have their own security there and you can’t use your phone. If you do, they will beat you up, especially if they don’t know you. It was recently set on fire. But the police told them beforehand and such things happens sometimes. When I became a drug user I became shy and ran away when I saw my friends and relatives. In the past, because I needed to make money, I used to be very friendly with bosses and administrators, but now when I see them coming to me, I run away from them and hide in the alley. I don’t even want to leave home anymore. I am ashamed in front of those I know and I am not ashamed in front of those I don’t know. If there is no sense of shame, it is difficult to detoxify from drugs. If there is no shame, I might continue to use drugs without caring or paying attention to anyone.

Common themes and insights

Making sense of the life stories with common themes around agency and voice, violence and peace, and borders and boundaries.

Implications for researchers and policymakers

Life stories raise questions, provocations and pointers for researchers and policymakers.