Brothers Divided, Iconic Ukrainian Miners Torn By War

While Ukraine combat continues despite peace efforts, the Donbass region's famously rugged coal miners have divided their loyalties: some keep working on Kiev's behalf, others fleeing to the pro-Russian rebels.

Sunset over Ukraine's Lidievka coal mine
Sunset over Ukraine's Lidievka coal mine
Benoît Vitkine

MAKIIVKA — It's easy to forget there's a war going on when you're 480 meters underground.

The crash of explosions and detonations on the surface gives way to the considerable silence in the galleries, interrupted only by the sounds of dripping water and of passing carts filled with coal. Here, the men are focused on one goal and one goal only: extracting coal. They weave in and out of narrow corridors propped up by logs, crawling up the metal machines that tirelessly scrape the stone.

The war raging here in Ukraine isn't far away. Two days earlier, a team was trapped inside the second well at the end of their six-hour shift. A shell left it without electricity.

This mine, located in Makiivka, near Donetsk, never stopped functioning — even when the conflict and bombings were at their worst. When a mine ceases to function, it takes weeks just to pump out all the water and relaunch it.

Still, its director had to slow down its activity. Kiev halted supplies of wood logs, which are used to shore up the tunnels. The economy here has been hit hard. Coal production — 80 million tons in 2013 — is now at just a quarter of what it was, forcing Ukraine to import the material necessary for heating and for the industry from South Africa and Russia. Many miners have also left. In this mine in Makeevka, only 500 of the original 1,000 miners remain. Most have left the region, and about 50 have enlisted in the pro-Russian rebel "army."

Yuri is one of these fighting miners. He is stationed not far from the Kholodnaya Balka mine, where he worked for 22 years. The 42-year-old man enlisted on Aug. 4, at a time when the Ukrainian army seemed on the verge of victory. Miners are men of few words. His speech sounds like a thousand others heard in this region. "Ukraine is the aggressor," he says. "We must defend our land and our families." Standing with him is Sergey, 25. He doesn't have a family, but he does have a 1974 machine gun around his neck. The mine where he worked, in the town of Kommunar, has been completely destroyed, he says.

The miners from Makiivka understand them. Here too, people talk about land in Ukraine's Donbass region being under attack from Kiev's "fascist junta," of the government's inability to understand the miners. And most of all, they talk about these bombs that never stop falling.

"Some are fighting against the Ukrainian army," says Vladimir, 67, who was refused entry into the rebel militia because he was too old. "We are just defending our land while continuing to extract the best coal in the world." He hasn't received his pension for the last four months, so he decided to return to the mines.

Evolution of a revolution

At first, the Donbass miners — 150,000 of them still working and as many in retirement — didn't agree with what the separatists were saying. In the spring, when Donbass was set alight, they watched the events from a distance. They only participated in the independence referenda in May to express their exasperation, nothing more. First, the underclass rose up, followed by the marginals. The miners, on the other hand, represent a well-paid elite, beneficiaries of the USSR's glorious legacy. They are a solid family whose members recognize one another thanks to the black coal dust around their eyes, their resistance to pain, and how they watch the political agitation with contempt.

Since the Soviet Union's collapse, this solid family has been suffering. Their work is no longer profitable, and almost half the mines have closed. Deadly incidents multiplied. Donbass' coal production is essential to whole sections of the Ukrainian economy, but it's costly. All of the region's 100 mines under state ownership receive subsidies. Despite that, the idea that Donbass "feeds" Ukraine has remained deeply rooted in the region.

The "People's Republics" the rebels declared in Luhansk and Donetsk figured out how to use this scorned pride. They have restored the "black faces'" honor by pretending that Kiev intended to bury nuclear waste in the wells, and by waving the threat that an opening toward Europe would obliterate the sector. War and bombings have brought the ranks closer together. Those who took up arms did so during the summer, when the army was gaining ground on the rebels.

A coal mine in Luhansk — Photo: Ukrainian Emergencies Ministry/Xinhua/ZUMA

Others — a minority — made a different choice. Alexander, 51, whom we met on the front in Debaltseve, is one of those. A mechanic in the region's mines for 15 years, Alexander fights with the battalion of volunteers called "Donbass," mostly comprised of pro-Kiev locals. "Those who support the separatists would like to live as they did under communism," he says. "Work and watch TV while the mines and the government take care of the rest. But those times are over and, me, I want my children to grow up in a modern country."

The director of Makiivka's mine agrees with this viewpoint. In fact, that's why he asked not to be named. In the Donetsk People's Republic, you don't express an opinion that diverges from the official line. According to the director, support for the separatists among the miners is less important than it seems. "It's the worst ones, the less serious ones, that joined the rebels," he claims. "Now they're parading in uniform with medals. I'm forced to continue paying their wages even though I've had to cut those of my men by half."

The Donbass uprising was also a revolt against corruption. But according to the director, that hasn't changed either. On top of the "tax" that the separatists demand to be paid in cash, the mine must bribe the new authorities for the right to sell its coal: about $3.70 per ton inside the People's Republic, and even more to "export" it to Ukraine, which the separatists have theoretically forbidden.

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