A Journey from our Humble Beginnings
Travelling back to long-distant times, when the autumn winds gently stroked your cheeks, the land on which the Ar Naimgan deposit sits was full of colour. Frozen streams expanded to the size of the Tuul River and became a winter playground for children. When I was a child, summer meant playing until late in fields where the grass grew as high as a rider’s stirrups.
That beautiful land is now peppered with holes and mine dumps, and the rivers and streams have all dried up. The land has been disturbed by the pens of the greedy men who were in power. They have left livestock and wildlife with no pasture and grazing land, and herders with no drinking water. Mother Nature’s entrails have been pulled out for gold. It’s very sad, and I can hardly believe we’re all involved in this mess.
The consecutive years of devastating dzuds killed millions of livestock. My family was no exception; we lost all our animals and had no idea how to feed our five children. I had many sleepless nights. To survive, I was forced to remove the skin from livestock that had frozen to death, which I then sheared and sold to earn some money.
The ASM community began back in 2000 when difficult conditions prompted herding communities to move to mine sites, swelling the number of people panning for gold as an alternative livelihood. With no livestock left, I had no choice but to become a “ninja” miner in order to survive. Everyone from our soum, young and old alike - even my son’s teacher and the head of the bagh – began prospecting for gold. Every family member was busy: Fathers dug dirt, small children held the bags, larger children carried the bags, and mothers washed the gold. There were many nights when there was nothing but slices of bread and black tea to feed my children. After toiling in these difficult conditions, I was eventually able to afford to send my children to school.
One day, a group of policemen came to our mine site. They beat the men, confiscated their tools, and then arrested everyone - men, women and children alike. They locked us in a garage for 24 hours without food or water. From that day on, I feared further arrests. I constantly thought: “What if I’m arrested? What will happen to my children?” With no options, I continued to mine to make a living as a miner. Despite knowing that what we were doing was illegal, the number of ninjas in Zaamar soum grew to 20,000 by 2004. During this period, the number of mining-related deaths peaked. The work was dangerous, and there was a constant awareness of the possibility of dying; however, we were unaware of safety procedures. We knew only one thing: How to follow the gold.
It was a lawless time, and people acted without regard for rules and regulations. Child exploitation and child labour were common. In response to the problems, former President Ts. Elbegdorj launched “ninja clean-up operations” in collaboration with police and special state officers. During these operations, many were forcibly arrested and men were beaten for resisting arrest. The police treated the ninja miners as if they weren’t Mongolian citizens. The ninjas were eventually loaded on to a truck and driven out of Zaamar soum. Only local miners remained in the area.
The state officers working in the “official sector” then began to solely serve the gold companies, which made ninjas’ lives a nightmare. With the number of ninjas continuing to grow, police power to hunt them down was strengthened with the establishment of a police department with control over all soums.
Facing further economic hardship, some of us turned to burglary. We mainly stole during the night, removing waste dumps from mine sites. If we were caught, we were arrested and jailed for 14 days to one month in a Tuv aimag prison. In autumn that year, I was arrested and sent to prison in Bulgan aimag. The police took away our belongings, including our shoelaces and belts. They also cut the men’s hair. While we were imprisoned, the police forced us to follow the prison routine. Every day we had to polish the wooden floor with candles, scrubbing until our knees hurt. There was a girl in jail with me, and she wrote the following poem on the suffering of ninja miners.
A body without a soul
I am a human being, but I have no soul
I would say I’m just a body, but I’m alive
I can move, run, walk
But I can’t live as a human being
I didn’t kill anybody
But I’m being punished in a hellish prison
Weep, weep and weep, but I can’t help it
I’m a prisoner who will be in jail for a long time
What I’ve seen, what I’ve heard
I don’t understand
Committed to a ninja life, I’ve broken the law
This evil body of mine has no soul
Birth, life and death; it’s the nature of life
Life has made me realise everything
Working hard has made me tough
This weak body of mine can’t understand the pain in my heart
The poem exposes ninjas’ feelings and the adversity they face; it also shows that society was poor, and human rights and justice were still in their infancy.
After many long, tough years, we received good news from a woman named Bayarmaa Dashdondov. She spoke to us about how to operate legally without fear of persecution by establishing an ASM NGO. We reached an agreement with her to set up the “Enkh Munkh Ergekh Kholboo” NGO. In addition to providing work for five unemployed people, the NGO helped the ninjas to be publicly accepted. We can’t thank her enough; she enabled us to shed the ninja label and work legally as artisanal and small-scale miners.
Now that we’re operating legally, we pay taxes, we operate safe workplaces, we have a head office in Ulaanbaatar where we can gather for meetings, and we are supported by a great project that helps us with proposal submissions. That is our 20-year history.