DONBASS, UKRAINE —
The Donbass coal field in eastern Ukraine is a huge reserve that once made this region one of the most powerful in the former Soviet Union. But with the collapse of the Soviet empire, industrial production has declined, forcing many local people to find work in dangerous illegal coal mines.
Under the crumbling industrial landscape of eastern Ukraine, many are forced to scratch a living out of the earth in illegal coal mines like this one.
There are thousands of illegal mines across this region that operate without licenses or safety checks, and miners say with the complicity of local police, organized crime groups and politicians.
Some pits are 300 meters deep and lack adequate support and ventilation. Miners stack the coal into carts pulled up to the surface on these pulleys. The men often work without safety equipment, insurance or any hope of a pension. Some say hundreds of miners perish under the earth each year.
“Every week we have accidents. Two weeks ago on our part of the mine there was an accident, one guy died and another became an invalid. Almost every day I hear news of accidents in different mines where somebody was wounded or killed," said illegal miner Valera Mardanenitsa.
Like many others, Valera lost his job at a state run mine when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. As the Donbass region went into economic free-fall, he turned to drink and crime, and spent more than 10 years in prison. Now illegal mining is the only work he can find.
“I could go to the state mine, but I would have to pay $400 for a job and I might then be fired any time in the future," he said.
He can earn around $18 a day, but because the industry is unregulated, sometimes his bosses do not pay him at all.
"Owners often lie to workers, I know a team who were paid less and less each week they worked, and eventually they had to leave their jobs," he said.
Cheap coal from illegal pits now supplies up to 12 percent of Ukraine’s total output and is undercutting state owned mining, an outmoded industry that is heavily subsidized and estimated to be losing more than $120 million a year.
And while officials in Europe and the United States worry about a possible Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine, many here cannot see what assets Russia would hope to gain.