‘Heroes of the Cosmos’: The Ukrainian coal miners still working despite Russia’s war

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Amid the violent struggle for control of eastern Ukraine between the Ukrainian and Russian armies, miners nearby are continuing their battle in the bowels of the earth to deliver coal to their country.

Since the Russian failure to take the capital Kyiv earlier this year, fighting has focused since April on Ukraine’s industrial east and agricultural south.

Near Pavlograd, a town in eastern central Ukraine, 4,000 workers are employed at the so-called “Heroes of the Cosmos” mine, founded 43 years ago when the country was still part of the USSR.

Some 800 employees have been mobilised into the Ukrainian army, with the frontline only 150 kilometres away as the war with Russia enters its seventh month.

Yet despite the war, officials insist the mine’s production has not suffered. “Everyone is in their place, but we are with them in spirit,” says Oleksandre Oksen, a 42-year-old shaft manager.

From the outside, the facility looks like a university campus. Leaves on willow trees wave in the breeze, water gushes next to a giant chess set with pieces that reach waist height.

But 370 metres down, in a lift shaft that groans all the way to the bottom, the situation is quite different.

Here, the heat is stifling and the air is saturated with dust. Legend has it that the mine is home to a ghost who helps the workers. But even here, the war haunts them.

Miners must hand in their phones at the start of each shift. It means they are unaware of the latest information — including possible bombings that could hit their families and friends — until they return to the surface six hours later.

“When they leave the mine, the first thing they do is pick up the phone and call,” says Vassyl, the mine manager, who asked that his last name not be revealed.

After plunging into the tunnels, workers are transported by wagon for 3.6 kilometres before walking through a narrow tunnel, where rusty metal cages contain the rock walls.

In the tunnel, a conveyor belt carries the coal to trolleys which transport it to a lift and then to the surface where it is delivered to the power stations.

The galleries become narrower the deeper you go, until they are only one metre high. At the back, with his back arched, 33-year-old Volodymyr Palienko tries to repair a metal machine that gathers coal from the ground.

“What is happening in our country affects everyone,” he says, because “everyone has friends and acquaintances who are involved” in the war.