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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A Mother In Spain Denied Child Custody Because She Lives In Rural Area

A court in Spain usurps custody of the one-year-old boy living with his mother in the "deep" part of the Galicia region, forced to instead live with his father in the southern city of Marbella, which the judge says is "cosmopolitan" with good schools and medical care. Women's rights groups have taken up the mother's case.

A child in Galician countryside

Laure Gautherin

A Spanish court has ordered the withdrawal of a mother's custody of her one-year-old boy because she is living in the countryside in northwestern Spain, where the judge says the child won't have "opportunities for the proper development of his personality."

The case, reported Monday in La Voz de Galicia, has sparked outrage from a women's rights association but has also set off reactions from politicians of different stripes across the province of Galicia, defending the values of rural life.

Judge María Belén Ureña Carazo, of the family court of Marbella, a city on the southern coast of 141,000 people, has ordered the toddler to stay with father who lives in the city rather than with his mother because she was living in "deep Galicia" where the child would lack opportunities to "grow up in a happy environment."

Front page of La Voz de Galicia - October 25, 2021

Front page of La Voz de Galicia - Monday 25 October, 2021

La Voz de Galicia

Better in a "cosmopolitan" city?

The judge said Marbella, where the father lives, was a "cosmopolitan city" with "a good hospital" as well as "all kinds of schools" and thus provided a better environment for the child to thrive.

The mother has submitted a formal complaint to the General Council of the Judiciary that the family court magistrate had acted with "absolute contempt," her lawyer told La Voz de Galicia.

The mother quickly accumulated support from local politicians and civic organizations. The Clara Campoamor association described the judge's arguments as offensive, intolerable and typical of "an ignorant person who has not traveled much."

The Xunta de Galicia, the regional government, has addressed the case, saying that any place in Galicia meets the conditions to educate a minor. The Socialist party politician Pablo Arangüena tweeted that "it would not hurt part of the judiciary to spend a summer in Galicia."

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