Illegal Coal Miners of the Dombas

A reportage showing the devastation that follows when an industry shutters and decimates the economy that depends on it for its livelihood.

The Ukraine can import coal cheaper than it can produce – if you discount the economic impact. For politicians in Kiev, sacrificing heavily subsidized and inefficient coalmines for economic stimulus is a small price to pay. For miners and their families living in the Dombas, it’s become a social and economic catastrophe. With unprecedented unemployment and persistent hunger, many families - including children as young as 11 - have sought refuge working in mafia controlled illegal mines.

Illegal Miners of the DombassIn the very early morning light a man awaits for the arrival of coal as he smokes a cigarette.

Illegal Miners of the DombassSnezhnoye was once the model of Josef Stalin's planned cities. It’s industries, including metallurgy and chemical plants, were directly dependent on the local mines for fuel and raw materials. In 1997, when the World Bank began closing the mines, the economy collapsed. Factories, schools, restaurants, and shops went out of business. Unemployment soared to 50%. A population over a 100,000 fell to 60,000 in less than 10 years. For those indigent the illegal mines provide their only hope of feeding their families.

Illegal Miners of the Dombass
Donetsk Miner.Donetsk Miner.If the World Bank has its way miners like this one in Donetsk will soon be out of a job. The Ukraine can import coal cheaper than it can produce and as of spring 2002 only 35 out of the country’s 220 decrepit and dangerous mines have been closed with the World Bank calling for half of the remaining mines to be shut. With no funding for job retraining programs and unprecedented unemployment many miners are turning to illegal mining outfits to feed their families.

Illegal Miners of the Dombass

Natasha, 40, must work 12-hour shifts with a quota of two tons of coal each month to work on the gang. She receives $29 a ton. Angered by the deaths of both her husband and father to the mines, she states: “If we don’t work, we don’t eat. Just last month, a woman near us died from the cold because she couldn't afford to buy coal.”

Illegal Miners of the Dombass

An elderly woman searches for coal to heat her home as two 16-year olds take turns carrying a 100-pound sack. Each sack of coal brings just $1.50 on the black market. The human toll is much costlier as the mines have claimed two of these boys friends in the past year alone.

Illegal Miners of the Dombass

Members of the local mafia wait for the miners to bring them their coal. As the mafia grows stronger and more powerful on the backs of the miners and their families, politicians are less inclined to admit that illegal mining exists. Punishment of murder, violence and extortion are meted out to those who disparage the operations or speak to journalists.

Illegal Miners of the Dombass

Valentine 64, and Valentina, 62, contemplates the future for their 10-year-old granddaughter. “She will either be forced into illegal mining or worse – the sex trade,” states Valentine. The ‘Natasha Trade’ is a real concern as over 120,000 young Ukrainian women were trafficked last year. With no jobs and no future desperate women in Snezhnoye like their counterparts throughout the Ukraine fall prey to the traffickers’ promises.

Illegal Miners of the Dombass"In truth, the mines are our salvation,” states Sasha, the 37-year-old gang leader who owns one of the few two-ton trucks used to transport the coal. "The Ukrainian government has abandoned us, so I don't feel like a criminal. This is honest work. When the government returns to us, I will be happy to follow its laws and pay its taxes." The Ukrainian government had plans to revitalize the area involving shutting mines more slowly and retraining miners but has already run out of funding.