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Digging in the past: the coalminers of Kyrgyzstan

Markay — No place on earth is blacker than the heart of a coal mine, especially one without lamps or for that matter power tools or even oxygen masks.

The walls of this Soviet-era mine, pregnant with coal, barely reflect the faint beams from the miners’ headlamps. Sunlight never reaches the end of the tunnel, dug by hand some 400 metres (1,300 feet) into steep mountainside.

As pickaxes and shovels whir in the darkness around him and he dodges fellow workers scrambling past with 50 kilogramme (110 pound) bags of fuel on their backs, Naman Irispaev stops to reflect on what will become of his children.

"Look at our life. Look at how we work. It’s no life at all. I don’t want my kids to end up working down here. They have to go and study hard so they don’t end up down here like the other kids," said Irispaev, 40.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union nearly two decades ago, Kyrgyzstan, a land of soaring mountains and bustling bazaars, has been mired in crushing poverty and political instability.

Thousands of young men left for Russia and Kazakhstan to find work on construction projects or sweeping streets.

But now even that lifeline has been broken as the global financial crisis hits home in the ex-Soviet region’s economic powerhouses.

Without any prospects, many in Kyrgyzstan’s decaying southern coal belt are turning to a relic of the past for support: the network of abandoned Soviet-era coal mines that dot the landscape.

The tiny mining village of Markay can only be reached by car via a punishing one-hour drive on a broken road from Jalalabad, about two hours north of the regional capital Osh.

Here dozens of men descend every morning into the dangerous uncertainty of these abandoned mines without insurance or proper safety equipment.

The practice of reviving abandoned Soviet mines is nothing new, although business has been picking up, said a local taxi driver called Aidar whose brother owns one of the mines in Markay.

"During the Soviet Union they built a mine here but it was built using materials and equipment manufactured in Russia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union it was no longer cost effective and they shut it down.

"That’s when people started digging in the mines themselves."

Mines like Markay often work like informal businesses, with a wealthy local landowner claiming ownership with the help of a "krysha," a Russian word that literally translates as "roof" but carries gangland connotations.

The landowner sends poorer villagers into the mine then sells the fruits of their labour — raw coal — to business people with political connections in nearby cities like Jalalabad.

While the owners can expect to earn up to several thousand dollars a day from a healthy mine, the miners themselves only receive about 300-400 som (approximately seven dollars, five euros), for an eight-hour shift.

"What else can I do? I have a family to feed. I have children to feed," said Irispaev.

About two hours’ drive from Markay, the small city of Kok-Iangak was once home to a major coal mine that transformed the sleepy village into a thriving source of energy for the Soviet war effort in the 1940s.

But two decades of neglect have left the town in tatters.

The drab Soviet apartment blocks that housed the miners of the socialist future have long since crumbled to dust, leaving spectral concrete footprints on the barren land they once occupied.

A nearby statue of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin keeps watch over the ruins of a factory, its walls long since stripped of anything that could be sold or used at home.

On a hill overlooking the wrecked factory, Nurbek Satbaliev, 33, hangs around near a recently-revived coal mine — one of three in his father’s backyard.

The elder Satbaliev — a sprightly 60-year-old ex-miner with a do-it-yourself mentality — has rigged up an ingenious system for ventilating his mines using an old Soviet vacuum cleaner.

He donates a portion of the coal from his mine to a local clinic for use in traditional medicines for the many elderly and infirm residents that inhabit this virtual ghost town.

But the work of getting that coal, which Satbaliev Senior calls "a gift from God," falls on the broad shoulders of his son, at least when he isn’t tending the small garden that provides most of his calories.

"It’s very hard work. We get enough to live but that’s it," Nurbek Satbaliev said.

"I can walk down to the market and buy a loaf of bread, but I can’t go out for a vacation and take a walk on the riverbank like you can."