The landscape is scattered with coal mines and death rules in the mines around Jerada in Morocco. A donkey driver leads us to one of the mines in the east of Morocco. The hills around Jerada are full of hand-worked insecure mines. The miners are angry. There are increasing numbers of accidents, organised crime networks keep prices low, local authorities look the other way, ignoring desperately dangerous working conditions. Officially these coal mines were closed ten years ago – but the hills around Jerada are an antheap of illegal mining activities.
At the foot of this deadly hill, Maymoun, a miner, told us about the accidents: “In 15 days we had three deaths, one crushed foot, one crushed leg: completely crushed. So three deaths and two victims with broken bones. There’s nowhere else to work. It’s deadly here. People are tired. Exhausted.”
Working conditions are out of the Middle Ages. Miners use their bare hands, a rope, an old tyre… and their brute strength to carry the coal to the surface. How many men are risking their lives here? The miners estimate that in total, between one and three thousand people making a living out of these illegal mines. The mines go down to 30 metres underground. (With these primitive working methods, it takes two months to dig a hole that deep in this hard rock.) Then the horizontal galleries are dug, up to 80 metres long. Down there, they work in pairs, or threes. Or up to 7 or 8 on a team, using the most simple tools: a small hammer and chisel.
Hicham, a mine worker, told us: “We take our lives in our hands every time we go down there. Your courage, that’s the only safety you have. Down there you crawl on your shoulders…”
Fettah, a mine worker, said: “The galleries down there, they’re barely 45 centimetres high.”
Hicham, said: “Safety is in God’s hands: if it comes down on your head, you’re finished. If it comes down just beside, you’re saved!”
Mohammed, a mine worker said: “Once, there was a guy with a smashed head. We picked his brain up like this, and then we put it in a bag and we sewed it up before we buried him.”
Those who don’t die underground, risk death above: the miners have silicosis, a lung disease caused by inhaling silicone which leads to a slow and painful death.
To provide a minimum of air, the team leader uses a compressor to pump air through hosepipes. Ramadan explained:“The further they get down the gallery, the less they can breathe, and then they can’t go any further. So they come back because there’s no air. But with the compressor we can send them some air, that’s the machine there, the compressor.”
Mohammed said: “It’s difficult to breath down there, it’s Hell because you get suffocated by toxic gases.”
According to these miners, total production is around a 100 tonnes a day. The coal is used in furnaces, for heating, and running Turkish baths… The main buyers are local, but some lorries go to Casablanca, 650 kilometres away.
Idriss is a walking miracle. He survived a serious accident but had to pay his own medical expenses. Officially these expenses were reimbursed by the Social Security systembut in reality, he has never seen the money. He says the corrupt bosses who control the coal business pocketed the cash themselves: “I was digging and the mountain collapsed. They took me to Oujda. The operation was expensive; 500 euros. With medicines and the splint, I had to pay 900 euros.”
He says that if you aren’t in with the bosses here, you’re lost.
Jerada, near the Algerian frontier, owes its existence and its nickname, “The Anthracite Capital” to the old mines. But the electricity plant in Jerada uses coal from South Africa.
It’s a question of profit: the local coal mines, opened in 1927, are worked out. That’s why they were closed in 2001, and thousands of miners were thrown out of work. The region is blighted by unemployment, there are no other jobs here for ex-miners and unqualified youngsters.
North east of this scorpion-infested valley is the Algerian frontier. The poverty here has transformed this region into bandit country. An Eldorado for smugglers. Alcohol, illegal immigrants, and petrol are all smuggled. There are very few legal petrol stations, and many are closed. Everyone fills up at the roadside. Petrol containers cross the border in ordinary cars, and if a smuggler gets stopped by the police, the affair is often easily settled… with bakshish.
Back in Jerada, efforts are being made to improve the area: investments in roads, public services, and solar energy. But the construction of a thermo-solar plant hasn’t resulted in many jobs.
It is suspected that the miners of Jerada even let teenagers work in the mines. We met Mohammed and Hicham who told us they were very young when they started working at the mines.
Mohammed told us: “I’ve been working here since I was ten, since I was little, just a kid. There are children working down there. Yes, here. Children of ten, twelve years old.”
Hicham said: “I started working here eight years ago. I’ve been working here since I was twelve.”
According to how much strength they have, the miners work shifts of anything between five and twelve hours at a time. Only the above-ground team eat in daylight. The others eat in the coal-dust down in the mines.
As night falls, the call to prayer echoes around the streets of Jerada. Suddenly we hear wheelbarrows coming. One after another, women and children arrive. These are the poorest of the poor who have been out gathering coal chips from around the mines. “I have nothing left to lose,” says one of them. “My husand left me and I have to feed my children. And here it is cold at night. Very cold.”