Deep in the mine, months without pay: Coal miners struggle amid the war in eastern Ukraine

DONETSK, Ukraine – Glistening black sweat rolls down the spine of a beefy miner as he jackhammers bedrock along the shaft at the Chelyuskintsev coal mine in Donetsk, Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland.

Vitaly Khristich is one of hundreds of miners who each day brave the artillery fire that flares between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian troops to go down — deep, deep down — into the local mines. The mild-mannered man in his late 30s with a shy smile does this even though he has not been paid for months, even though his hometown has been torn up by war, and even though no one is really certain what government will eventually rule this territory — the central leadership in Kyiv or the separatists who want to join Russia.

One kilometre (half a mile) up above the ground, the entrance to the pit is guarded by armed rebels, pro-separatist graffiti adorns the fences and Ukrainian government firing positions dot the nearby fields.

“You think about how to get to the mine, and not get caught in shelling, and then how to get back home,” said his colleague, 30-year-old chief surveyor Svetlana Momot. “It’s really scary.”

Ukraine’s eastern coal mines lie smack in the middle of its war. As the country’s finances spiral out of control, the mines have become an even more vital resource of jobs, energy, heating supplies for winter and fuel for the entire Ukrainian economy.

About 55 per cent of all the country’s coal mines are located in a relatively small area controlled by the pro-Russian rebels who declared independence in May. The front line between the warring parties separates the mineral wealth of the Donetsk region from Ukraine’s energy plants and grids, endangering both the region’s future and Ukraine’s entire energy security.

Heavy fighting and electricity blackouts have paralyzed the work of dozens of mines in the region, whose capital, Donetsk, was founded in the late 19th century by an industrialist from the former coal powerhouse of Wales.

The rebels often threaten to stop sending coal to Kyiv but the Ukrainian government could simply cut off the electricity generated at a power station on its side. Without that power, shafts will get flooded and could be lost entirely as an energy source.

As of mid-October, only 24 out of the 93 coal mines in the region were operational. Cut off from electricity for weeks, many mines got flooded. At least two of them are beyond repair, another 10 are fully flooded and seven others risk becoming that way, according to Ukrainian officials and the mining trade union.

At the nearby Trudovskaya mine, workers say it’s going to take at least two more months to pump out all the black water lapping the rough shafts.

Coal output in the Donetsk region dropped 20 per cent to 22 million tons from January through September compared to the same period last year. That has forced the Ukrainian government to import coal from abroad — 1 million tons is under contract from South Africa — an unprecedented step for this energy-rich nation.

In turn, Ukraine is already experiencing a 30 per cent coal shortage at power stations, according to Energy Minister Yuri Prodan.

Chelyuskintsev, a government-owned mine west of the rebel-held city Donetsk, was closed for nearly three months before being re-opened in late September. Two workers have been killed in Grad missile strikes on the premises since the war began in April — and one artillery strike even hit the mine’s office building.

The mine’s workers have not been paid since August. Despite the war, it has been shipping all the coal it produces to Ukraine’s state-owned distributor — and yet it still has not been receiving government financing.

Mine director Vasily Dancha finds the government explanation for why workers have not been paid their 57 million hryvnia ($4.4 million) in back wages baffling.

“They say ‘You’re going to use the money we send you for military purposes,'” he said. “As if they don’t understand that people who have not been paid for three months have no money to buy bread.”

Still, many separatist combatants in Donetsk are local miners and pro-rebel sentiment among this workforce is strong. Around 100 Chelyuskintsev miners have joined the fighters and two have been reported killed in combat. Others said they will vote in the Nov. 2 rebel election as long as there is no heavy fighting.

Viktor Chugunov, a 28-year-old section chief at the mine, must navigate checkpoints on his way to work because his home is across the front line on the government side. When the power fails because of the fighting, he and his colleagues have to spend an hour walking up the mine’s shaft because the elevator doesn’t work.

The 900-meter-long (nearly 3,000-foot) shaft is lined with a rattling conveyor belt that carries the coal out of the mine. It ends at a long wall where coal is extracted. The only woman down here is Momot, whose face is caked in thick soot. Her husband, who works at a neighbouring mine, was injured this summer during shelling outside his workplace.

“At least there is no bombing down in the mine,” Momot noted.

Most coal mines in rebel-held areas are powered by a hydroelectric plant in Kurakhove, a town a few miles away under government control. That plant, in turn, runs on coal from the Donetsk mines, a neat illustration of the mutual reliance that both sides will find hard to sever.

“If they keep it,” Dancha said of the government power plant, “it will be important leverage for them to use.”

Despite much pro-rebel sentiment, the Chelyuskintsev mine does not fly the rebel flag — or any flag, for that matter. Dancha says he was “advised” to take down the Ukrainian flag a few months ago. But he would not fly the rebel flag either.

“I told them ‘As long as we are not paid, there will be no flag,'” he says. “‘If you get us our salaries, we will fly your (flag).’ Everybody here really wants to work.”