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Last Updated: Friday, 24 August 2007, 14:49 GMT 15:49 UK
Child labour in Kyrgyz coal mines
By Natalia Antelava
BBC Central Asia correspondent

Kylych says the $3 a day he earns is vital for his family

Sharp pieces of coal fly across a narrow, dark, airless space as a man bangs the wall of the cave with his hammer.

A slim boy sits crouched in the corner, waiting for the miner to fill his sack. Once full, he throws it behind his back, slouches, and starts his journey along a narrow, mucky pathway back into the sunlight.

The boy, Kylych, is one of dozens, possibly hundreds of children working in the abandoned Soviet-era coal mines in the mountains of southern Kyrgyzstan.

He knows what he does is extremely dangerous. He says he has seen his friends die and has been trapped inside himself.

But, he says, he has no choice. The US$3 a day he makes is crucial to his family's survival.

"I'd rather go to school, of course, but I need to help the family," he says.

Frequent accidents

Like many of its neighbours, Kyrgyzstan never recovered from the collapse of the Soviet Union, which destroyed, among other things, the country's once-thriving mining industry.

The coal mines were abandoned, and the infrastructure left lying in ruins.

Zulfia with her children
People are taking their children out of schools and sending them to work at mines. There is simply no other way to make money here
Mining widow Zulfia, with her children

After years of watching the government fail to revive the economy, people turned to excavating coal themselves. But the mines they dug out were often too narrow for adults, and so fathers began bringing in their sons.

No one knows the exact number of children working in Kyrgyzstan's coal mines.

Locals say the government refuses to acknowledge the problem. Officially these children may not even exist. Yet we saw them at every coal mine we visited.

They work all year round, under the blistering heat of the summer and in the freezing temperatures of the harsh mountain winter.

"Sometimes in the winter the caves get flooded, and people have to dive in and swim to the end of the cave to bring a pump and get the water out," Nurbek, a local from a nearby town, says.

Accidents and deaths are common and people here are desperate for government help, but they are also reluctant to ask for it.

Nurjamal Mambetova, who has set up a local non-profit organisation and has been trying to come up with a solution to the problem, says she fears that drawing the government's attention to the issue could only make things worse.

"We worry that they will close down the mines, or blow them up, and that won't solve the problem. People will just start going back to them and digging again because they have no other way to survive," she says.

"What we need are alternatives, other jobs, or proper conditions at the mines. Something, just not this," Nurjamal says.

'Very dangerous'

Over a cup of green tea, 35-year-old Zulfia weeps as she talks about her ordeal. She has five children and less than US$2 a day with which to feed them.

Her husband died in a mine accident, while trying to rescue two boys trapped inside. He only managed to save one and died with the other.

Uluk at the opening of a mine shaft
Uluk is small enough to get through the narrow mine entrance

After the accident, the owner of the mine, another local resident, offered Zulfia's husband's job to their 10-year-old son.

"Of course I won't let him do this, because I know what the price is, but other people do. We are just so desperate here," Zulfia says.

"People are taking their children out of schools and sending them to work at mines, there is simply no other way to make money here."

It takes a 40-minute hike, in blistering sun, to get to the mine where Zulfia's husband died.

When we arrive, two boys are loading heavy sacks onto donkeys; two others are heading inside the mine to bring out more. They do not even wear helmets.

Their hands are callused, and their childishly-chubby faces covered in black dust.

One of the boys, Uluk, tells us he is 14. He looks younger, but sounds older as he says he does not approve of his little brother working at a nearby mine.

"It's very dangerous and it's not a proper place for children," Uluk says.

"We hear about tragic cases all the time. There is gas inside the mines and you can get trapped and choke, or sometimes there is fire underneath," he says.

"And it's very bad for your health. But still people have little choice. They come to make money, and so we come with them," he adds.

Uluk, like many children here, may not have much of a childhood, but he does have dreams.

"When I grow up I want to become a policeman, so that I can catch thieves and protect children," he says.

It seems there is no one in Kyrgyzstan to protect him.

Country profile: Kyrgyzstan
16 Apr 07 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Kyrgyzstan
16 Apr 07 |  Country profiles

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