Donetsk, Ukraine - The conflict in eastern Ukraine, where separatist rebels have fought against the Ukrainian government since March, has disrupted one of the pillars of the region's economy: coal.

Seventy percent of the Donbass area's coal mines have closed because of the fighting, and just 24 remain operational, Ukraine's deputy minister of energy and coal said in September.

That has bestowed an increased importance upon the small, illegal mines known as kopankas.

"It's down to us, with our kopankas, to provide a lifeline to local villages," said Dima, a miner, who like others quoted only gave their first names.

During the winter, many in rural Ukraine use coal as a heating source, which is considerably cheaper than other energy forms.

The Donbass region in eastern Ukraine - where much of the fighting has taken place - has been known for its large deposits of anthracite and lignite coal since the late 19th century.

Soviet miners were portrayed as role models and enjoyed privileges not available to average workers [Filip Warwick/Al Jazeera]

Powering the USSR

Coal was a vital ingredient in the Soviet Union's industrial machine, providing the energy to power the heavy industries that dominated the Donbass region.

With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, many of the industries connected with mining were hard-hit, causing widespread unemployment. The disappearance of the Donbass region's relative affluence came as a shock to the miners and those who depended on them.

Mining jobs caused an influx of workers into the towns of Shakhtarsk, Torez and Snizhne, near the region's capital, Donetsk. Soviet miners were portrayed as role models and enjoyed privileges not available to the average Soviet labourer.

"I was a miner and my father was a miner," said Andrei Petrovich, a retired miner who looks back fondly on the Soviet era.

"I worked all my life in the mine - now look at my pension. Back then [Soviet] society respected us [as miners]. The best leaders this country ever had were Stalin and Andropov. We had peace and stability in the Soviet Union; back then you could live and die in dignity. Thank God we now have Putin - he is the only one who can stand up to the West."

Miners who had spent their entire lives at the mines feel betrayed by post-Soviet developments [Filip Warwick]

Thousands of such mines, some as deep as 300m, are now believed to operate in the region - providing a source of employment and coal for locals.

Miners say a team of three to four workers can extract between three to five tonnes of coal a day, on average, depending on the mine and the equipment available. Although many mines closed in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse, some who had been involved in the industry used their knowledge and expertise to open kopankas throughout the Donbass region.

'That's when you start to pray'

At one kopanka on the outskirts of Torez, a miner named Anatoly operates an improvised lift large enough to carry two men. It is a basic structure that caters to basic needs: to get the men in, and coal out.

This kopanka, like many others, has virtually no health or safety standards - unlike legally sanctioned mines, which are supposed to monitor methane, oxygen and coal dust levels.

Although there is no data on the number of accidents and deaths in kopankas, Ukraine is said to have the second highest mining fatality rate in the world, only behind China.

Thick wooden pegs support the mining shafts. "When a peg splinters, you need to replace it, maybe once a week or once a month - depends on the wood. Very rarely you feel small earthquakes. That's when the pegs start to sing, and that's when you start to pray," laughed Yuriy, also a miner.

The improvised lift at the kopanka allows two men to get in and the coal to get out [Filip Warwick/Al Jazeera]

Kopanka miners interviewed by Al Jazeera agreed that their workplaces are dangerous. But Yuriy said he is not fussed about the safety issues. "You get used to it, and besides we are all in it together. If something happens to me, it will happen to all of us down below."

Should I stay or should I go?

Although there are miners who support the separatist movement, they are often not able to join the battle themselves.

"Some of my friends have joined the DNR militia [Donetsk People's Republic]," said Yuriy, referring to the self-proclaimed state fighting to break free of Ukraine.

"Some were promised good money, others out of principle, some others looking for adventure. Some have made it back - and others have made it to the cemetery," said Yuriy.

Sasha said he didn't join the front-line fighting because "there's nothing to do there - and besides, my priority is to stay alive. You get fed [on the front line], but what about my family? Someone needs to look after them".

There are no safety regulations at the kopanka mines and miners 'pray' to survive [Filip Warwick/Al Jazeera]

And the mining job is more reliable than others in the region, said Dima.

"You get paid on a regular basis," he said. "Look at others, some teachers haven't been paid for months."

Given the chance, Anatoly said he would join the separatist ranks, however, similar issues prevent him from doing so.

"I would join the boys but my father is paralysed and my mother is a pensioner. Someone needs to look after them. We get paid around 750 hryvnia [$50] a week and have coal. Of course the villages would not survive without the coal [from the kopankas]."

But others who lost their jobs at legal mines as a result of the fighting are struggling.

Alexander Anatolyevich, who had worked for a government-owned mine but is now unemployed, has come to Donetsk to work as a taxi driver.

"What else can I do? I've been a miner all my life," he told Al Jazeera. "Many of my friends have left the region to look for work in Russia and Kiev. Kiev is expensive but Moscow is even more so. It will take years to rebuild the region and for Donbass to get back on its feet."

Many kopanka miners feel they have no other options for employment in war-torn Ukraine [Filip Warwick/Al Jazeera]

 

Source: Al Jazeera