On illegal mines in the Donbass region and where the Police and other authorities are not looking
Everybody knows about the illegal mines in eastern Ukraine, but nobody does anything about it. The police have left people to the devices of thieves and bandits.
Mariusz Zawadsky, writing for the Polish newspaper Wyborcza, cites a friend in Kyiv as saying that the situation with these illegal mines is like putting the whole country under a microscope. “Their owners make their first money, create companies and move to Donetsk or Kyiv. There they move into the higher level of business, with not only local officials and the police shutting their eyes to their dirty dealings, but ministers. That’s how they make fortunes here”.
First microscopic viewing: Olkhovatka
The outskirts of the village of Olkhovatka, 60 km. from Luhansk, is covered in coal mines. “Tell the truth, let all Europe learn that lawlessness prevails here, that the police are in cahoots with bandits”, I was implored by people who no longer know how to fight the “moles”.
The author is taken to one such mine where the pit, 2 metres by one, has been carefully covered over by boards. Given that they can be 100 metres deep, any child not watched over carefully could fall to their death.
“The kopanki, as they’re known locally, provide excellent business: it’s enough to find several unemployed miners and add for their help a few drunks. They’ll work for a pittance and you don’t need to worry about labour laws. Last year in a mine near Krasny Luch five miners died in an accident. Nobody was brought to answer for their deaths.
In order to sell coal from the kopanka, you have to get documents stating that it was extracted legally. No problem with this either: There are plenty of mines in the Donbass region, once the centre of Soviet industry. You just need a friend in one of them who for a small cut in the profits will get you the necessary papers. Obviously it is the simple miners who suffer from this, dismissed or sent on unpaid leave because a mine which has extracted coal fictitiously should not now obtain it in reality.
The police provide no obstruction at all, and for that reason everybody around is convinced that they are also involved in this mafia. After all trucks carrying coal from kopanki leave Olkhovatka in broad daylight. The road which is not suited for such loads is already irreparably destroyed. “And one police car detaining them would be sufficient”, the author’s local guide, Vasily, comments.
The only problem is from locals like Vasily who from time to time make noises. This does not happen that often since the “moles” seriously intimidate rebels. The residents of Olkhovatka are even frightened of the police. If they complain to them about the kopanki, then only anonymously and by telephone. Yet there’s no reaction.
A week ago I myself went to a police station in Yenakievo, the nearest large city. “In the Dolzhyk ravine in Olkhovatka someone is illegally mining for coal”, I reported. “So what?”, the police officer on duty asked and roared with laughter. He’d not had dealings with such oddballs before. “Surely that’s a crime?”, I asked. “In general yes”, the officer replied and began writing a report. A series of absurd questions followed about my civic state, wife, her name and education, my education and so forth. After a half-hour interrogation the officer handed me a card with the report number: 6957. “You can ask about it by telephone”. Aren’t we going to the ravine for the culprits?”, I ask. “This crime will be dealt with by the department for economic crimes”, the officer says. “But they’re digging now”, I don’t let go. “Whether we go or don’t go, they’ll still keep digging.”
There’s no answer on the police number I was told to ring to find out about my statement. However I did get a call from Vasily, the guy who took me around the kopanki. He signed a letter of protest to the Head of Police and the following day received a visit from some people who told him “You’ve really wound us up, old man. But we’re nice so want to give you a warning. If you continue to make a din, something terrible could happen to one of your relatives.”
Second microscopic viewing: Lutyhyno
At a kopanka near the city of Lutyhyno, closer to Luhansk, even on a Sunday evening several excavators are working with coal being packed on trucks. There’s a police station three or four kilometres away and you can see the huge mounds of earth from the road, yet not one police officer has yet noticed the gigantic kopanka.
According to the Head of the Lutyhyno District Administration, Yury Hladkykh, they are “aware of the problem but unfortunately can only fight it through administrative methods. The police or environmental protection service need to deal with it. I’m not obliged to go around all kinds of kopanki! But I sometimes go. Two weeks ago we went to that big one outside the city, called the Prosecutor and the police. A protocol was drawn up, investigation begun, but nobody has told me what steps have been taken to stop the “moles”. At present they’re continuing to dig….”
When there is no more coal, the owner simply stops the mining, leaving a huge pit in the ground, and moves elsewhere. They have geological maps and know where the coal is.
“From above our region looks like a field dug up by giant moles”, Sergei Beshenko, Deputy Head of the Environmental Protection Service for the Luhansk region, says. “According to our estimates, there are around 300 large kopanki, whereas nobody knows how many small-scale ones there are.”
In the village of Pervozvanovka just after Lutyhyno “moles” work on private land, without the consent of its owners who received it following the break up into shares of collective farms. The people, due to age or feeling intimidated, usually don’t complain.
It’s impossible to speak to the kopanka workers who are a particular type of person. More often than not they don’t want to be part of the staff, preferring to dig from morning to night, take their wages and buy moonshine. Several days later, when they’ve sobered up, they return to work.
Deputy Mironov says that during the summer his cow fell into a kopanka and lay there a week before they could get her out. Since that incident he has lost patience and has become fighting the “moles”. Recently, together with 26 of the most dealing owners of plots of land he signed a letter of protest to the Head of Police and deputies of the Lutyhyno District Council. They have yet to receive a response.
The Head of the District Council, Viktor Bardayev, confirms that the letter was received. “I sent it on, to the Governor”, he says. “And a month ago called the Head of Police to a session of the Council for him to explain police lack of action. The Head did not appear and I haven’t in fact set ideas on him for several weeks. He’s supposedly very busy. I informed the Prosecutor and Governor about all of this. What else can I do?”
The author explains his difficulties in speaking to the Head of Police, Maxim Okopny, about the kopanki. He’s asked by Mr Okopny to wait an hour, then learns that the latter has gone somewhere on urgent business and nobody knows when he’ll return.
The author heads to the Prosecutor’s Office, where they also don’t want to see him, however he is in luck. It’s the time when they see members of the public and he’s with a resourceful journalist from Luhansk, Vladimir Khapchuk, who is fighting the kopanki like Don Quixote. He demands to be seen, not as a journalist, but as a citizen.
They go in and if looks could kill, then the gaze of Prosecutor Mykola Nohin would strike them dead. They ask why he didn’t want to see them as journalists and are asked if they think the Prosecutor is an old woman from the market who’ll chat to them. The Prosecutor says that they will receive an answer to their information request in the legally stipulated time frame.
Even the Deputy Head of the Environmental Protection Service, Inspector Beshenko, although the nicest of them all, washes his hands, like the others. “In theory of course it is also my duty to get “moles” prosecuted for harming nature. Yet what am I supposed to do? I have 50 inspectors for the entire Luhansk region, a huge territory, and half of them are women. Are they supposed to chase the “moles”, fight them and put handcuffs on them?”
Beshenko refuses to be drawn on whether the impunity of the “moles” is the result of the inadequacy of the authorities – the Head of the District Administration, deputies, police, Prosecutor’s Office, protectors of nature, or also a result of the fact that all these officials, or at least some, get their cut from the profit made by the kopanki. “I don’t know, I haven’t caught anybody red-handed”, he says. “But I remember that the Head of Police in one city in our region was removed over the kopanki. He’s now Head of Police in another city.”
(slightly abridged from an article by) Mariusz Zawadsky, Luhansk