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.
Farkaslyuk residents are luckier than some because they can at least dig chunks of coal from the towering spoil bank, where significant amounts are left from generations of mining.
Recent temperatures of below minus 20 Celsius have forced dozens of men at a time to go digging among the spoil, some using little more than their bare hands.
The mayor of the village, Dezso Gabor, said he would prefer not to talk about the coal diggers because the area belonged to a private company, whose cooperation was necessary to continue talks about reopening the mine at some point in the future.
The company, electronics manufacturer Elco, has so far turned a blind eye to the low-key diggers. Elco Chief Executive Jozsef Illes did not return Reuters’ calls seeking his comments.
A SINGLE PICK-AXE
At this time of year, those venturing onto the spoil bank must start by breaking through at least 30 cms (one foot) of frozen earth, then sift through huge amounts of sandy soil before, if at all, they hit coal.
A young Roma named Tamas Putnoki popped his head out of a hole in the ground when he heard Bari approach.
“This yours?” he asked, referring to the 6-foot deep pit that Bari had started a few days earlier.
“No, go ahead,” Bari said, gesturing further along the edge of the earthen wall, which dropped off at a steep angle, following the original line of the spoil bank’s sloping side.
“We don’t have our own patch,” he said. “We dig where we can, and then when we’re done and someone else comes along, we often just say, go for it.”
Putnoki bent down into the hole again. He held a worn pick-axe the size of his forearm, in hands covered by a pair of cotton gloves tattered almost beyond recognition.
“As you dig deeper, it’s not as cold as it is up here,” he said. “You have to suffer your way through here to get to the coal. But I’m only here for a little while now, just to have something to warm us up at home.”
Once someone sets out for the pits he has no time to look for work elsewhere and he must choose: either sell some of his coal to buy food, or be warmer but hungrier.
On Thursday, fewer locals were digging than usual despite the stubborn cold, which kept the temperature around minus 15 Celsius even in the sun.
The monthly unemployment payments arrived at the town hall and were handed out from 9 a.m.
Those who got their money went straight to the grocery store, loaded up with basic supplies and headed home to feed their families. Then, by the afternoon, many were back on the spoil bank.
“Some people have said that people here, especially Gypsies, don’t want to work,” said Lajos Harkaly, an unemployed Roma who digs coal frequently. “Look, we do this here by hand, and it’s work that in mines they have machines to do.
“If we do this, every day, just to have something to burn, do you think we would ever reject real, paying work?”
Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Tim Pearce