The value of human life in Nalaikh

By Allyson Seaborn

This article was originally published by The Mongolian Observer Magazine.

Exposure to fear and hardship increases your resilience, but it doesn’t increase your chances of survival when the walls of a mine shaft are crumbling around you. Resilience means nothing when you cannot breathe and are slowly suffocating dozens of meters below the surface of the Earth.
I have thought a lot about fear and what dying must be like since my visit to an illegal coal mine at Nalaikh. I have pondered over what it would be like to perish under mountains of rubble – perhaps slowly, perhaps quickly depending on the sheer force of the material burying you. It would be pitch black and nobody would be able to hear your final scream.
Before cramming myself into the rusty vessel which resembled a giant English bathtub from the 19th century, I glance at the dodgy steel cable which will soon guide me downwards. It’s attached to an archaic looking winch. Soon, a man will press a lever and we’ll descend down the precipitous mine shaft. It’s such a small, but ominous opening into the Earth, to where the coal lies. The impulsive part of me orders me not to think about it too much and tells me to just squeeze my eyes tight. I’m freezing cold as I wait for the miner who has volunteered to accompany me on this frightful journey. I’m relieved when I feel him jump in behind me, his boots pressing at my back.
It’s just at the start of the descent, perhaps only two meters in, when I start to panic as the tunnel closes in on me. I can barely hear myself shouting, “STOP!” and I realize my companion cannot hear me. Even if he could, I don’t know if it would have been possible for him to halt our descent. If we stopped, what next? Sit crying in a dark tunnel? There is no stopping. This is not a game or a joy ride, and I deeply regret my decision. Upon reflection, this has been the most frightening experience of my life. I am a mouse in a deadly, bleak hole. I feel the thundering grind of the earth underneath the steel bottom of the tub I sit in and hope the winch is strong. I curse profanely and am paralyzed by fear – fear at its pinnacle. This is fear I will never be able to shake. Further and further, my eyes now closed tightly, just waiting. Then, slowing down and finally halting with a dull thud.
I know we’ve reached the bottom because my head jolts sharply, the tub is facing down a near vertical slope and I peer into a dimly lit cavern. I feel a pat on my shoulder from behind, a touch that signals I’m going to be ok and can get out now.
“Let’s go. Keep it together, Allyson,” I mutter to myself and tear my coat open on a sharp bit of steel. My legs are shaking as I stagger to my feet. Someone is helping me and guiding me. The intense panic has subsided somewhat as I step onto the coal platform 40 meters below to gaze at three men who are holding picks and shovels. They adjust their lanterns and look bewildered by my presence, and then I hear their warm Mongolian greetings and look into their surprised, wide eyes.
I touch the jet black walls speckled with brown and grey dirt, where jagged bits of coal beg to be hacked away and unearthed.  Everything around me looks shiny and wet against the glow of the faint light, and I run my fingers over the coal face. The cavern is about 25 square meters in area, with varying heights and nooks all around. A toothpick-like beam supports the ceiling in the highest part above us, three old logs and a bit of wire. There isn’t a hope in hell of this beam holding anything up in the event of a collapse. I’m no mining safety expert, but realize the futility of the ridiculous support mechanism above me.
The miners with me do not complain. They explain. They have jobs. They’re grateful. They know it’s a dangerous occupation, but what choice do they have? And this is how it works: you chip away at the walls of coal and fill up the tub, and then send the tub full of coal back to the surface. Repeat day in and day out, and each morning pray it’s not your day to die.
On average, about 15 people perish out here every year. The majority of these victims are young miners between the ages of 15 and 35, most with families, hence, the number of widows and fatherless children in Nalaikh. They either suffocate or are buried alive. Many of the shafts are nearly 100 meters deep and accidents occur frequently in the death traps like the one I am in today.
Only a handful of the of 200 mine shafts active in Nalaikh are legally authorized, yet mining remains a major source of income for the local economy, and ironically, Nalaikh coal heats half of Ulaanbaatar in the bitterly cold winter months.  Despite the vehement opposition of residents, it became illegal to mine in the Nalaikh mines in mid 2013 due to the increase in casualties. You cannot, however, support your family if you abide by the law. It’s a truly bizarre situation intertwined with politics, greed, and corruption. I’m filled with admiration and compassion for the coal miners of Nalaikh.
Logistically, yet unofficially, it works like this. Authorities have granted leases over the Nalaikh mines to locals. These locals, in turn, rent the shafts out to the coal miners who dig out the coal, pay their rent, and survive on whatever is left in terms of profit. There are between five to ten men at each hole – drivers, winch operators, and men armed with picks and shovels. No government has ever attempted to enforce the ban on illegal mining here, nor have they tried to provide advice or assisted with even the most minimal of safety standards. Nothing has been done to protect the lives of these miners, not by the Mongolian government, and certainly not by individuals who hold the leases on these death holes. Timber supports within the mines are considered to be an unnecessary cost, and each year the tunnels go deeper and deeper. Nobody seems to care. Life is cheap in Nalaikh it seems.
I am gasping for breath now. The blackened, haggard faces of the four men below with me appear concerned, but their smiles and cheery banter put me at ease. When I later think of it, I realize that perhaps they have acclimatized to the lack of oxygen. They could speak fluidly, even chuckle and joke as they worked. Beside me, a flimsy ventilation tube flaps endlessly as air is pumped down the shaft by a small fan positioned on the surface. It resembles one of those cheap pumps used to fill jumping castles at birthday parties and provides little air. When I hunch over to try and take a deeper breath, one of the miners puts the end of the tube to my face. I inhale and imagine this is the feeling a person with emphysema or a chronic lung condition has. It’s the desperate feeling of wanting to fill your chest with oxygen, but not quite being able to do so. I guess this is what slowly suffocating to death feels like.
I’ve heard rumors that children also work in these mines. I don’t see any kids when I’m down here today, but I did witness two young boys hauling sacks of coal on their shoulders earlier in the day. They were trudging along, only meters away from one of the pits closer to the main center of town. A friend tells me the children down the holes are called “sparrows” because their little voices sound like birds chirping.
I tumble onto my knees and one of the miners grabs my arm and helps me to my feet. I wonder how many children he has. Although his clothes are torn, his hands coarse and dry, and hair matted with black cake, I can still see the Mongolian twinkle in his eye and his perfect white teeth gleaming in the darkness. There is no fear in these eyes. He watches me curiously. Maybe he is glad for the break in his day. He’s extremely gentle and kind and again tries to help me breathe by grabbing the ventilation tube for me. Part of the wall on the other side of the cave randomly begins to crumble. Perhaps these walls always crumble. The miners do not seem too alarmed, but I want to get the hell out of here now. It’s been only ten minutes, but I feel the panic and claustrophobia setting in again.
The difference between the have and the have nots in Mongolia has never been so blindingly apparent to me. I’ve seen poverty, hardship, and desperation in this country, but working in conditions where life and death exist side by side is something I’ve not previously witnessed firsthand.
The coal miners help hoist me back into the giant tub – a tub that has no coal in it on this return journey.  All five of us ascend, and it’s a lot less frightful going up than down. We travel upwards further and further and eventually I see the light at the end of the tunnel. Companionship must make this job easier, I realize. I feel so glad these brave, hardworking men surround me. In my eyes they are heroic.
For a reason which eludes me, I cannot help but embrace each of these miners when we reach the surface. This is not because we’re good friends, but because I want them to know I am so very thankful that they watched over me. I wish they would throw down their picks and shovels and seal the death trap up behind them, but I know they cannot. They aren’t sad or angry about their working conditions, and so I will be sad and angry on their behalf.  Nobody is looking after their safety, but this isn’t of concern to them. They have no choice. They have no say in the matter. The men I met this day are just glad to be able to be making a living in a very tough situation. It’s what they do. This is what the men, women, and children of Nalaikh have done for years and years. This is the reality.
I hope these coal miners of Nalaikh are all still alive and well when I return one day to see them again.

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