Jobless Roma dig coal at mine dump in icy Hungary winter

Thu Feb 2, 2012 11:52am EST
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By Marton Dunai

FARKASLYUK, Hungary (Reuters) - For 20 years, Jozsef Bari used to drive his bulldozer out onto the spoil bank every day, leveling and smoothing the spoil from a nearby coal mine in this remote northeast corner of Hungary.

On Thursday he went there on foot, pushing a wheelbarrow, in search of coal. He rose early, dressed warmly and loaded the barrow with a pick-axe, a shovel and a tough sack.

As the winter sun rose above the horizon, he climbed the 30-metre high mound of spoil in the bone-chilling cold, his wheelbarrow bumping and squeaking on the frozen, snow-covered ground.

"Without this coal here, many people would freeze to death," said Bari, a Roma and father of three. "This way, you dig from dawn to dusk, and if you're lucky you can take home a wheelbarrow or two full of coal ... It's a miserable way to get by."

Hidden in a dead-end valley in the mountains near the Slovakian border, the mine where Bari once worked closed down nearly 20 years ago, plunging most local residents - many of them Roma - into dire poverty and long-term unemployment.

In this region, as in the rest of Hungary, the dismantling of Communist-era heavy industry had the greatest impact on the local Roma: they were laid off by the thousand, and most of them were never able to find another steady job.

The government tightened unemployment regulations last year, cutting the available benefits and tying them to the little available public work, which often left the jobless even poorer than they had been.

Winters are especially tough, with many Roma foraging for anything flammable to burn in heaters and stoves.   Continued...

<p>Jozsef Bari, 52, digs for coal by hand from a spoil bank next to a defunct coal mine near Farkaslyuk (200 km northeast of Budapest) February 2, 2012. Bari and many others from Farkaslyuk, a town stricken hard by unemployment and dire poverty, keep warm during freezing temperatures of -17 degrees Celsius with the coal. The spoil bank is owned by a private company, which turns a blind eye on the theft so as to spare the coal diggers from the cold. REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh</p>