Civil war has led to the legalization of a dangerous shadow industry.
SNIZHNE, Ukraine—The darkness bred fear. Tolek Golovko tried to calm down as a wagon carried him 800 meters down into the mine. The boy was afraid the wooden pillars would fail and the ceiling would come crashing down on him and the rest of the group. That happens on a regular basis here in Eastern Ukraine.
Most recently in March last year, 33 people were killed when a mine collapsed outside of Donetsk. That one was large and state-owned, so the news went global. But when illegal mines like the one in Snizhne collapse, it is not always reported. Instead, families are compensated, mines are closed—and they become another secret mass grave deep in the woods.
In other words, the 14-year-old had reasons to be afraid. “It was so dark, so cold, so wet. It was almost as if I couldn’t breathe,” Golovko recalls six years later, when we meet him after his shift. When he first arrived at the tiny mine in the woods of Snizhne, he came with a friend. They lied about their age, said they were 16 and that they were happy to work several days of the week. Little time was left for school.
“Both my friend and I needed the cash. He had recently made a girl pregnant, and I wanted money for my family,” he recalls. When we ask him what his parents thought of his new job, he simply answers: “They have always valued hard work.”
Snizhne is a town that has followed the Ukrainian coal industry’s economic roller coaster. Today, the Soviet housing blocks look empty and the streetlights remain dark during the night. But Lenin still stands proud on the main square; pro-Russian rebels took control of Snizhne after war broke out in the spring of 2014.
The big state-owned mines and the illegal operations in the woods have existed side by side here for decades. The former employ miners with degrees, provide social benefits and allow strong unions. In the woods, other rules apply. Conditions are much more dangerous, shifts are longer, and passages are narrower, but the inexperienced teens who work there are paid twice as much, despite having no education or training.
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