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Crossing Continents Wednesday, 12 March, 2003, 12:04 GMT
Desperate Ukrainians brave deathtrap mines
George Arney
George Arney visited Ukraine's mining communities

In Ukraine, men, women and children are risking their lives working in illegal mines where accidents are frequent, and often fatal.

It must be one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.

But life is so tough in eastern Ukraine that women, and even children, have no choice but to spend eight or more hours each day toiling deep underground.

Luba is 53 years old. She has been scraping coal out of an illegal mine for the past five years, since the retail company she worked for went out of business.

All the good coal was dug out by our grandfathers

Luba

"I am too old for this kind of work," she says "but we have to earn something, so we can eat."

Wearing a thin floral print dress and carpet slippers - scant protection against the minus 12 degree temperatures - Luba leads the way down the mine.

It takes a strong nerve to crawl after her.

Suffocation risk

Using primitive, hand-made implements, she and her husband have tunnelled their way into an exhausted mine gallery that was closed down 30 years ago.

"All the good coal was dug out by our grandfathers," she says. "We are now digging what our grandfathers did not want."

Twenty metres down, the only light comes from a rusty miner's lamp.

The ancient roof supports look rotten. A heap of shale blocks the way ahead: a recent rock fall.

Luba chooses this moment to tell us about two miners who died from suffocation near here last week. We beat a hasty retreat.

Frequent accidents

There are no official figures for the number of deaths suffered by illegal miners in Ukraine.

The government's involvement is restricted to the occasional bulldozing of illegal mines, which are soon re-excavated by jobless locals.

Anecdotal evidence suggests accidents are frequent and often lethal.

Even Ukraine's official mining industry is - after China's - the most dangerous in the world.

The safety record has worsened since independence in 1991.

On average, 400 miners die each year. According to an EU-funded safety expert, two thirds of those deaths are unnecessary.

Official miners unpaid

A stop-start programme aimed at restructuring the inefficient and corrupt coalmining sector has failed to tackle the twin issues of investment and mine safety.

Where loss-making mines have been closed down, former miners have no option but to work illegally.

A mine entrance
Both legal and illegal mines have bad safety records
Where pits are still open, miners frequently remain unpaid for months on end.

Many therefore prefer working for themselves down an illegal mine. It may be a greater risk, but at least there are daily wages, however pitiful.

Children as young as 11 have been reported working down such mines, helping to support families who sometimes survive on just one meal, plus bread and tea each day.

Andrei is an illegal miner in his late 20s. He usually earns less than 4 for a day's work and has two young children.

"Let them do whatever they want, but not this," he says. "Anything else. But do not come down these mines."

Spinal injury

In days gone by, the miners of the Donbass region were acclaimed as heroes, the backbone of the Soviet Union's industrial might.

But in independent Ukraine, heroism has gone out of fashion.

Yuri Kosmenko can walk with the help of crutches, but his twisting progress is painful and awkward.

Disabled 23 years ago in a mining accident, he lives today in a squalid two-room apartment lit by a single candle.

His pension is so small that, despite the sub zero temperatures, his electricity supply has been cut off.

Since the accident which broke Yuri's spine happened in Soviet times, post-independence Ukraine disclaims responsibility for any compensation.

Yuri is trapped between a painful past and a pitiless present.

Many of Ukraine's remaining half a million miners could be said to face a similar predicament.

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents was broadcast on Thursday, 13 March, 2003 at 1102 GMT.


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