Well to Hell: Welcome to Ukraine’s Frontline Mines
1 March, 2018

It resembles a scene of collapse: two enormous wheels, the roar of a pump, red buildings with an empty “Employee of the Month” board. Nearby stands another board — labeled “Our Mine Is Proud Of Us” — and also devoid of any photos. In the grass nearby, stray dogs finish off someone’s leftover meat cutlet.

But this is the “Zolota” mine, one of the only Ukrainian companies that has continued to produce coal despite the war. Almost 500 people work here in total. They have to pump out water every day so as not to flood the neighboring mines in the Ukrainian government-controlled territories. They have done this every day for over three years of war in the Donbas.  

The Zolota mine has continued to work throughout the war. Photo credit: Eugeny Spirin/Hromadske

The miners work in four shifts. Even during heavy shelling, when the mine was flooded and left without electricity, the miners found a way to save their own lives.

“We are currently working on one layer. There were better days when we mined nearly 1000 tonnes of coal a day. Now the load is very small. We work to support ourselves, up to 2000 tonnes a month, because we are on the front line. Before the war there were 1000 workers, now less than half remain,” says the mine’s director Ihor Novosolov.

He has dressed up for us today and is wearing a suit jacket. Along with several similarly dressed colleagues, he welcomes us in the meeting room. When we met for the first time a few months ago, after accidentally stumbling across the Zolota mine, the director looked sweaty, dragging a hammer behind him. He just wanted to sleep.  

The director of Zolota, Ihor Novosolov, says that the number of employees at the mine has fallen by half since the start of the war. Photo credit: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske; Eugeny Spirin/Hromadske

He often goes down into the mine himself and he has saved the company during the heavy shelling by siphoning off the water, standing knee-deep in mud. At least that’s what his colleagues say.  

“When the shelling started, people started to flee. I don’t blame them. People want to live, eat, drink. The neighboring mine in Pervomaisk” — located on the territory of the self-proclaimed “Luhansk People’s Republic — “has not pumped out any water in two years. Some of that water flowed to us. There used to be 250 cubic meters of incoming water, now there are 600. It will get worse in the future. Then all the water will come to us,” Novosolov continues.

Ihor Novosolov does not always dress so smartly. During heavy shelling, along with the other miners, he helped save the mine from flooding. Photo credit: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

While the director is talking about water flow, pumps and production standards, the second shift begins. Next to the plant with the red roof, a crowd of men begins to form.

“Which channel are you from?” someone shouts.

“Hromadske,” we answer.

The man appears to have misheard our channel’s name. He waves his fist and shouts:

“What Pervomaisk? That’s part of the ‘LPR.’ Where were you all two years ago when it all kicked off for us? Nobody cared about us.”

“Calm down, no one comes here anymore,” his friends reassure him. “Don’t be so rude, these people have come from Kyiv.”

“From Kyiv? They’re all full of themselves in Kyiv. They only want our taxes. The natural tribute for the rulers…” the man says, but then he calms down and leaves. 

Next we meet Sasha. Everyone knows him here. Sasha is referred to as “horizon-400”. Horizon is the term for the level of the mine, and 400 is the depth at which it is located. Sasha descends by himself and works in the depths. He always works alone.

Sasha is “horizon-400.” Photo credit: Eugeny Spirin/Hromadske

He can’t keep silent, he doesn’t want to and he doesn’t know how to. Unlike the other miserable men, Sasha tells jokes, which soon turn into angry monologues about life on the frontline, but then he remembers his wife.

“I was born here, you understand? Well, you don’t understand anything,” he says. “I grew up here among the waste from the mines and the thyme bushes. The fights between villages, being stabbed in the side by someone. I remember they stabbed someone in the side. The police overdid it with arrests. That all happened to me. I went to school, and then to the mine. I got married. I went to the mines because otherwise, I would’ve ended up in prison. My child was born. The mine, the wife, the child — nothing has changed since 1978.”

The rusty loudspeakers make a screeching noise, which sounds like a ship’s whistle. This means it’s time to collect their tokens.

These tokens are passes for the miners: one token for their descent into the mine, and one is for coming back to the surface. When they get into the cage lift, they hand in one token and someone records the number on the token. The miner keeps the second token. Once they have come back up, the second token is checked against he first. If all pairs of tokens are present, it means that everyone has returned. If one is missing, it means that someone is stuck, lost or buried alive.

“Damn. Accidents are the most frightening thing. If all the tokens are not counted up, it immediately causes anxiety. We put all our effort into finding out who has been left underground, why he didn’t come back, we establish the reasons for it,” says the woman, who hands out the tokens. She puts on a brave face for the camera and fiddles with her office stationery, but her voice begins to tremble: “Accidents mean fear…”

The miners’ metal tokens that allow them access into the mine — one for the descent and one for the ascent. Photo credit: Eugeny Spirin/Hromadkse

 Sasha shouts through the window: 

“Let’s get ready! Horizon-400!"

He returns and politely says:

“Come with me. I have biscuits and coffee. I’ll treat you. It’s only 400 meters away. You won’t be able to see anything else like this without me.”

“You can really drink coffee there?”

“Your mom can drink coffee there!” Sasha jokes. The miners collecting their tokens start laughing.

It’s time for the shift change. The miners have all collected their tokens and are all wearing dirty overalls and rubber boots. The mine shaft is the last place they can smoke before they descend.

The miners bite out the filters of the already strong cigarettes. Their next smoke break is in eight hours. There’s a board nearby warning that tossing a cigarette butt will cause an explosion. Sasha points at the notice with his finger and jokes again: 

“You come down into the mine and there’s a fire! Yeah, call the police, fire-shmire!”

They all laugh.

“Oh, we had some times! You could go to the work on the Baikal-Amur Mainline if you wanted, or to work in the virgin lands, you could go and build the Trans-Siberian. But I went to the mines. I had to get out of here, but now where is there to go? It’s too late.”

“The last point near the mine shaft where you can smoke.” Photo credit: Eugeny Spirin/Hromadske

Sasha spits and gets up. It’s time to descend.  While the miners are waiting for the lift, they have a chance to talk about the latest rumors. Sasha’s friend says:

“500 hryvnias [$18.50] were deducted from my salary. For the war needs, they said. Our soldiers now receive 500 hryvnias for every shot!”

 “That’s bullshit!” Sasha retorts. 

“I’m telling the truth. Why do you think they shoot at night? Because they’re getting paid for that. Who would want to shoot in the middle of a field at night? See?” he carries on. 

“If you’re so clever, then why are you poor?” asks Sasha. Everyone laughs once more.

While the miners wait, they have a chance to to talk about the latest rumours. Photo credit: Yevhen Vasylyev, Eugeny Spirin/Hromadske

The lift arrives, the door creaks open and people pile into the small booth. The lift descends. Sasha sits on the bench alone. He has his own level in the mine.

“If you were dressed better, I would have taken you with me. But maybe next time. I need to go now. Off I go, to the new 'horizon.'”

The woman operating the lift sighs: “If it wasn’t for the war, we would be able to both have enough coal and feed ourselves by now. But it’s ok, that day will come. There’s always light after the darkness.”

/By Eugeny Spirin