This article first appeared in the January 2015 issue of the Al Jazeera Magazine.

Donbass, Ukraine - Donbass is a coal-mining district in the east of Ukraine, lying on the border with Russia, more than 700km from the capital city of Kiev. Aside from some heavy industry and breathtaking countryside, Donbass has little to offer its inhabitants. In fact, for the vast majority, there is only one available form of employment: mining.

The region may be poor and underdeveloped but it is rich in coal, forcing generation after generation of its young men into a life spent largely in darkness, digging for black gold.

Many, especially the young, can only find work in illegal mines, which are more or less plain holes in the ground. In these, they face even greater risks, knowing that they will never get a pension or compensation in the case of injury or illness - two things that are almost taken for granted in a job in which every day might be your last.

No miner here will tell you that he likes his job, and most seem to hate it. But becoming a miner offers at least a measure of financial security, if such a word can be applied to a type of work that takes place hundreds of metres below the ground, in unsafe and aging mines that claim lives and limbs on a daily basis.

The young miners of Donbass also face the uncertainties that cloud the future of the region. Dozens of mines have been closed over the last decade because of poor productivity, leaving thousands of miners unemployed.

The prospect of economic integration with Europe to the detriment of Russia, and the adoption of stricter mining standards, alienated miners and played an important role in sparking the current pro-Russian uprising. With the region mired in insecurity, its residents don't even know in which country they will be living in the future.

On their part, the young miners speak, think and sing in Russian, and have little attachment to Ukraine, a country that they feel never gave them anything. They often speak of how the more Westernised residents of Kiev and the rest of the country see them as ignorant menial workers and show no respect for the hardships and dangers they face every day. To them, Ukraine is a failed state, particularly when compared to a Soviet Union they never personally experienced. Back then, they say, workers, and miners in particular, were the backbone of a strong country, and nobody looked down upon them.  

Often having grown up without parents, many of whom died as a result of mining themselves, the young miners still recall happier times when they dreamed of becoming an archaeologist, a carpenter or of having their own business. Now they struggle to stop their work defining their lives, and to find what little enjoyment they can - fishing, drinking and smoking with friends - when they are above ground. This is the life of a miner. It isn't a life any of them would have chosen. But nobody offered a choice to the young miners of Donbass.

Twenty-one-year-old Tolek and 23-year-old Tolek smoke a cigarette after an eight-hour shift in an illegal mine in Davidovka. The mine is located a few hundred metres from their houses. [Janos Chiala and Tali Mayer/Al Jazeera] 

 


Photogallery 

Twenty-year-old Dima wanted to be an archaeologist, but his parents told him he would do better to find a job in construction. His father was also a miner. He committed suicide a year after Dima's mother died of a heart attack. Today, Dima works as a miner because, he says, 'there is no other choice, and I need the money if one day I want to feed a family'. [Janos Chiala and Tali Mayer/Al Jazeera] 

Krasnodon is a mining town some 5km from the Russian border. In the background is the defining feature of the Donbass landscape: the terrikon, a mound of debris excavated by a mine. [Janos Chiala and Tali Mayer/Al Jazeera] 

Twenty-nine-year-old Ivan is going to work in Shakhtiorsk at 5:30am, after drinking a couple of beers. He is married and became a father for the first time a few weeks ago. He often jokes about how every day, when he goes to work, he does not know if he will return alive. But when asked if he is afraid, he laughs and says: 'You don't ask this question to a Russian.' [Janos Chiala and Tali Mayer/Al Jazeera] 

Twenty-eight-year-old Renat and 20-year-old Regina would like to get married, but have not been able to save enough money to do so, even though Renat has worked in, mostly illegal, mines for the past eight years. [Janos Chiala and Tali Mayer/Al Jazeera] 

The elevator towers of an old mine in Krasnodon. The mines and the equipment they use date back to the Soviet Union. Soviet technology may not work very well, say people in the Donbass, but it will work forever. [Janos Chiala and Tali Mayer/Al Jazeera] 

Miners on the bus to go to work in the early hours of the morning in Makeevka, a mining town on the outskirts of Donetsk. [Janos Chiala and Tali Mayer/Al Jazeera] 

A miner in Krasnodon shows his last monthly paycheque. It amounts to little more than 4,000 grivnas or $260. The cost of feeding a family can reach 5,000 grivnas or $330, and living costs keep rising, particularly since the events at Maidan have thrown the country into turmoil. [Janos Chiala and Tali Mayer/Al Jazeera] 

Twenty-year-old Vasily was reluctant to let a stranger photograph him. Then one night, after a few beers, he eventually agreed. He was surprised when we turned up at the legal mine where he works in Viktoria, near Shakhtiorsk, the next day. But, as one of his friends explained to us, among Russian men, 'if you say, you must do - otherwise you're not a real man'. [Janos Chiala and Tali Mayer/Al Jazeera] 

An illegal mine in Davidovka, with the towers of the Glubje mine rising on the horizon. Descending 1,650 metres below the ground, the mine is the deepest in the Donbass. Many miners have died in its tunnels, where temperatures can reach 55 degrees Celsius. [Janos Chiala and Tali Mayer/Al Jazeera] 

Twenty-three-year-old Tolek works several hundred metres below ground in an illegal mine in Davidovka. His job is to break the coal using a jackhammer, at the deep end of a dark tunnel, which is about half-a-metre in height. [Janos Chiala and Tali Mayer/Al Jazeera] 

This monument in Shakhtiorsk is dedicated to the miners who died fighting in World War II, which in Russia is known as the Great Patriotic War. The victory over Nazi Germany, and the enormous sacrifices that accompanied it, are still central to the identity of the people of Donbass. [Janos Chiala and Tali Mayer/Al Jazeera] 

This is the only shop in the mining community of Davidovka and in the evenings it doubles up as the area's only bar. [Janos Chiala and Tali Mayer/Al Jazeera] 

Thirty-year-old Sasha draws in the kitchen of his flat in Shakhtiorsk. He cannot work because of internal injuries he suffered in a mining accident, and therefore has no money. His boss claimed the accident was Sasha's fault and refused to pay him compensation. [Janos Chiala and Tali Mayer/Al Jazeera] 

The USSR nightclub in Donetsk, the regional capital of Donbass, is the main destination for a special night out. [Janos Chiala and Tali Mayer/Al Jazeera] 

The mother of Andrey Papov, who died in a mining accident at the age of 34, kisses his grave on the first Sunday after Easter, when Russian Orthodox families visit their dead relatives. [Janos Chiala and Tali Mayer/Al Jazeera] 

The entrance to an illegal mine near Shakthiorsk. The mine was closed after four young miners were killed in an explosion. [Janos Chiala and Tali Mayer/Al Jazeera] 

Miners smoke at the end of their shift in a legal mine in Donetsk. Working in a legal mine means taking fewer risks, better working conditions, regular pay and, most importantly, getting a pension. But, it is hard for young miners to find a job in a legal mine, particularly if they have a criminal record or do not have the right connections. [Janos Chiala and Tali Mayer/Al Jazeera] 

Twenty-seven-year-old Andrej plays a game of lientochka in Krasnodon. This is when two people challenge each other to do a certain number of pull-ups, adding one more at each turn. His opponent gave up when they reached 11 so Andrej continued on his own. [Janos Chiala and Tali Mayer/Al Jazeera] 

Source: Al Jazeera