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article imageUkraine's rebel miners choose lethal toil over bullets

By Yulia Silina (AFP)     Oct 3, 2016 in World

"You either steal, fight or dig."

These are the stark choices that led a lean 28-year-old to risk his life on a daily basis by working in an illegal coal mine in Ukraine's war-torn industrial east.

The sooty-faced man agreed to identify himself only as Sasha to protect his safety when talking about "kopankas" -- pits that scatter the coal-mining region of the pro-Russian rebels who revolted against Western-backed Kiev in April 2014.

Sasha says the alternative options were getting involved in organised crime or joining separatist fighters whose war has claimed nearly 10,000 lives.

He chose illicit mining because -- though far from safe -- it was a much less deadly way of earning daily bread than fighting with the rebels in a conflict that has so far claimed almost 10,000 lives.

"In a month, you can earn 12,000 Russian rubles ($190) doing this, while the fighters get 15,000 rubles. But here, I am less likely to get killed," Sasha says.

Technically he is violating Ukrainian law by working at a mine that lacked official permits to operate before the conflict.

Such mines have since been recognised as legal by the insurgency leaders of the self-proclaimed "people's republics" of Donetsk and Lugansk.

Sasha adds that conditions down the pit are brutal and the backbreaking work hardly worth the pain.

"It is like the Stone Ages down there, exactly like it was a hundred years ago," he says, shaking coal dust from his coat.

Sasha says that conditions down the illegal coal pit in eastern Ukraine are brutal and the backbreak...
Sasha says that conditions down the illegal coal pit in eastern Ukraine are brutal and the backbreaking work hardly worth the pain
Aleksey Filippov, AFP/File

- Cast-iron bathtubs -

Sasha must get into a cast-iron bathtub with a jackhammer in his hands to be winched down a 150-metre (500-foot) shaft where he smashes the coalface in near-total darkness and stifling heat.

The process involves his colleague Yevgeny spinning winding gear with a steel cable to lower him down the shaft. The bathtub is then used to raise up the coal.

The practice is far from standard or modern -- or necessarily fail-proof.

But Sasha and Yevgeny simply shrug it off. Other local miners are even worse off.

"We use a cast-iron bathtubs, but workers at other mines have to use iron boats. And they attach motors from old cars to the winding gear," Sasha says.

Fatality figures are rarely publicised in a region where the militias also keep their death toll from the war a top secret.

Lugansk rebel prosecutor David Kats claims there have been only four injuries at the illegal mines in his region this year.

"These people have not received any compensation," Kats admits.

Ukraine's Independent Miners' Trade Union simply scoffs at those numbers.

"It is cheap coal that comes from cheap labour that profits the rebels. No one there is thinking about the miners' safety," regional union chief Mykola Volynko tells AFP.

An external view of a "kopanka"  a small illegal coal mine in Shakhtarsk  in the Donetsk r...
An external view of a "kopanka", a small illegal coal mine in Shakhtarsk, in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, on September 21, 2016
Aleksey Filippov, AFP/File

"And I know from my own sources that people are constantly killed or permanently maimed and are then written off as combat losses," Volynko says.

Even officially accredited Ukrainian coal mines have a poor safety record.

Data shows that around 1,000 people have died from methane gas explosions and other mining accidents since Ukraine gained independence in 1991.

- Selling at a loss -

There are more than 80 illegal pits scattered across rebel-held lands.

Yet some remain closed or mothballed because the insurgents want the owners to officially register them with the self-proclaimed authorities and pay taxes.

An illegal mine owner who agreed to be identified only as Vasily says he pays about 150,000 rubles per month in taxes to the Donetsk separatist leaders.

Vasily also laments that he has no choice but to swallow the cost because no one else wants or can legally obtain his coal.

"I have to sell my coal on the cheap here in the People's Republic of Donetsk because our leaders have cut us off from the rest of Ukraine," he says.

"And our brother Russia does not need our coal -- they have their own to deal with."

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