A reportage showing the devastation that follows when industry shutters and decimates the economy that depends on it for its livelihood.
Ukraine can import coal cheaper than it can produce – if you discount the economic impact. For politicians in Kyiv, sacrificing heavily subsidized and inefficient coal mines for economic stimulus is a small price to pay. For miners and their families living in the Donbas, the closures of these mines have 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.
In the very early morning light, a man awaits the arrival of coal from below as he smokes a cigarette.
Snezhnoye was once the model of Josef Stalin's planned cities. Its 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. With factories, schools, restaurants, and shops going out of business, unemployment soared 50%. A population previously at 100,000 fell to 60,000 in less than 10-years. For many desperate people, illegal mining provides their only hope of feeding their families.
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.”
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.
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.
Valentine 64, and Valentina, 62, contemplate 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.
"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.