DONETSK – Four hundred miles south of Kiev, the oppressively cloudy sky overwhelms the vast plain. The only things cutting through the horizon are the slag heaps from the region's coal mines.
The coal basin of Donbass has seen better times – before Ukraine became independent in 1991, it was the heart of the Soviet military-industrial complex. But now, "many state mines have already been closed or privatized. Everyone is unemployed here,” says Volodia, an ex-miner from the small town of Zuyevka. "This is why people from all over the region have started digging up the ground." That now includes women and children.
Around Donetsk, a major industrial city, coal can be found only 30 feet underground. "There are over fifty kopankas – illegal mines – in our village alone. Most of them are about four years old," says Volodia. "The police doesn’t stop us, because everyone profits from this system."
A small cloud of smoke rises on the plain, metallic structures with strange fingers plunge under the ground. Once you have passed the last houses of Zuyevka, these illegal concessions dot the landscape at regular intervals. New roads are cut into the fields for the dozens of coal trucks who come and go every day.
"Men came to see me. They said they were going to dig a mine on my property. I don’t have another choice than to let them do it. For my family and my own safety, it is better not to protest," says the woman on the phone." Don’t take this the wrong way, I’d rather not have journalists come to my house." In a country where corruption is rife, and despite public declarations, the Ukrainian administration is not doing anything to fight these clandestine mines – instead it structures and develops the system. "The coal from the kopankas is sold back to the state mines at low prices, it is incorporated to the official production and then sold back at market rate," explains Myjhaïlo Volynets, the head of the independent minors’ union. "The government takes advantage of the people’s misery to fill its pockets."
According to Ukrainian experts, around seven million tons of coal are extracted every year from the kopankas, which represents 10% of the global production. "In the legal mines, you need about 80 to 100 euros to extract a ton of coal. In kopankas, this number falls to 50 euros," says Myjhaïlo Volynets. "It’s easy to see how lucrative this is for the government." State subsidies are added to this profit margin in order to artificially keep afloat the public mines which are only profitable thanks to the illegal mines.
High death toll
Shovels, pickaxes, a few logs to keep the ceiling from falling, these are the only – basic – tools used by the minors, putting them at great risk. Even if there is no official number, Ukrainian rescue services believe about 300 people are killed each year in the country’s mines. "The illegal mines aren’t deep enough, the layers of earth and rocks collapse and fill in the tunnels. And of course, there are fire damps," says a rescue worker who chose to stay anonymous. "The accidents seldom make the front page – the authorities prefer to minimize their impact. Sometimes, we are not ever informed of accidents. The exploitation owners stay quiet to avoid problems," he says. "People are simply erased from the face of the earth."
In the small village of Zuyevka, Sacha Ponomarenko and his family have been fighting for years now against the opening of mines, which they say are an environmental hazard and making local farmland unusable. "My father used to be the mayor of this town, he wanted to make the get rid of the kopankas," says the young man dragging nervously on his cigarette. "To shut him up, the police accused him of being corrupt. In the end, he was imprisoned and never made it to his hearing. We have a new mayor who’s open to discussions if you want to open a mine."
President Viktor Yanukovich’s creed has been the same for months: Ukraine must increase its coal production to free itself from Russian gas. In this context, there is no chance that the clandestine mines of the Donbass basin will slow down any time soon. Especially since rumor has it that Alexander, the president’s son, is directly supervising the whole operation – although it is hard to prove. In the region, local authorities prefer to stay quiet – as long as the money flows in and the bosses are happy.