I recently took a group of French TV reporters to Snizhne. They have reported from Ukraine many times before, but admit that nowhere is as dreadful as the Donbas. They compared the mining towns to Prypiat, the town contaminated by the Chornobyl disaster. While the latter stands uninhabited, the mining towns are home to hundreds of people, where every day of their lives is a misery. Snizhne is the Gordian knot of corruption that seems impossible to disentangle – or cut. The mayor of the Severny village, that is administratively part of Snizhne, Liubov Rozhko, was caught red-handed taking a bribe and could have ended up behind bars if it hadn’t been for the surprisingly loyalty of the court, giving her a suspended sentence – rumour has it –for a bribe.
Unauthorized coal mining in Snizhne involves everyone, even those campaigning against it. It emerged that the people who invited us to the town to report on the struggle against kopanky, work in them themselves. There is no other work in the town.
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Obviously, the small mines need to be legalized somehow, but this does not seem to suit those who earn huge profits in the business. Snizhne is a state within a state. Local mine businessmen do not care much about Kyiv, and the latter does not insist on it. During the latest Dialogue with the Country on TV, President Yanukovych essentially gave the green light to looting national minerals on air. “Go on digging little by little, what can we do with you?” he said when asked about kopanky.
And they do. Only a few speak out against unrestricted stealing – mostly those uninvolved in coal mining or those facing pressure from kopanky owners wishing to mine under their land.
Coal can be found almost everywhere in Snizhne, so mining it without ruining someone’s garden is next to impossible. As they come to town, the French reporters witness the locals’ struggle against entrepreneur Rafael Tamazian, who bought a plot for a mine several metres away from buildings where people live. He is going to open a mine there, getting licenses and collecting signatures. According to his opponents, bribes are given for licenses; signatures are faked, and the new kopanka will ruin their homes. So far, there is only a guard’s hut built hastily of wooden boards, and a hole with steam coming out of it. The guard is a woman who stays in the hut with no windows or light, and a pair of dogs. It makes me think of a Kusturica film. As I watch this, I realize that the European reporters cannot fully grasp the reality of mining towns. I realize how barbaric the daily life of 21st century Ukrainian mining towns appears, and how far it is from the standards of the civilized world.
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A little farther into the woods, the locals show us another kopanka. This one is bigger. It’s right next to the town cemetery. The coal is mined from underneath buried coffins. The locals fear that the buried will soon start falling into the pit and lament that the miners have no heart, digging under the graves of other miners, possibly their relatives. The names of the mine owners are no secret: one is Pidhornyi, former section head at the Severnaya mine, now closed; the other is someone with the surname Kit from Makiyivka. This kopanka is now almost a mine. Bunkers to store coal and elevators are built on the ground. Under the storage roof, stands a truck that is noisily filled with the black gold. The mine employs both men and women, around 10 people per shift. This is a lot for a kopanka in the woods. The miners have occupied an abandoned hut nearby, turning it into their office, bathroom and a parking lot.
The shift is in full swing as we storm into the kopanka with TV cameras and a microphone, trying to talk to the workers in dirty uniforms and hard hats. They run away and start calling for their boss. Some recommend that we either get out, or be hurt. The reporters realize that nobody will talk to them and quickly pack their cameras back into the car.
The locals warn us that the woman from the hut has already called for help and that we should leave immediately, not stopping anywhere, because Rafik’s people are already after us. One of the local activists gives us her homemade jam. As we pack everything into the car, I think that it’s like a war. People meet us, reporters, like liberators or guerillas, and see us off giving us food as if we were going to the front-line.
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As we drove back, the future mine’s director chased us in his car but stopped once we left the town. The foreign reporters did not stop to talk to him, having seen his aggressive maneuvers. The photo of his car was later posted on the Internet and the town police called him in for an interrogation to prevent an international scandal. He explained that he just wanted to show us his license to mine coal. The French TV channel aired the report several days after our adventures. It associated the kopanky to the family of President Yanukovych, ruining his reputation even more and showing the French audience how top Ukrainian officials earn their wealth.