By David Mdzinarishvili
TBILISI (Reuters) – When the roof of a coal mine collapsed in the Georgian town of Tkibuli in July, killing four miners and injuring six, the small town was plunged into grief. Not for the first time.
In fact, just three months previously in April in an accident at the same pit, six miners were killed and three injured.
In all, 32 miners have died in accidents at the Mindeli mine in Tkibuli, 200 km (124 miles) west of the capital Tbilisi, over the past decade and most local men acknowledge that if they could find other work they would do.
The reality is there is no other alternative.
July’s accident was caused by a build-up of pressure leading to an explosion.
After every serious accident, human rights activists and unions in Georgia renew their calls on authorities and private companies to improve security for miners.
After a protest in Tkibuli two years ago miners won some improvement in working conditions and a small pay rise.
But, in general, little changes, the protest mood fades and miners go back down the pit again.
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A few see it as an automatic continuation of a family tradition.
“I always wanted to work at the mine … It’s a difficult job, but it’s interesting because I learn something new every day,” said 20-year-old David Tsnobiladze, whose father and grandfather are also miners.
But he admits few of his young peers share his attitude.
“Many of them are unemployed, but still don’t want to work at the mine because they’re either afraid or lazy.”
Tkibuli is located in the lowlands of a scenic mountain gorge though the city itself is a typical Soviet-built industrial town with gray shabby houses and unsightly streets.
School children can head for the local stadium or pool after school is over or join in folk dancing classes. But for teenagers or those who are older, there is a sad dearth of night clubs or internet cafes.
Mining was developed in Tkibuli in the 19th century and the town became the centre of Georgia’s coal mining industry in Soviet times.
Miners were an elite class of worker at the time. They had good salaries and perks and Soviet dictator Josef Stalin even spared them the draft during the war.
An infrastructure grew up around the mines.
But all that changed with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Textile workshops, a lemonade-producing factory and other small businesses were closed, leaving the mine as almost the only job option for locals now living in an independent state.
“If there was a chance to find another job in this city, nobody would work at the mine,” said 30-year-old Gocha Gabunia.
He was also slightly injured in one of the accidents, though he got back to work a few days after that.
Some think the deadly mine should be shut down.
“Agricultural farms should be built around the city. That would be an alternative to the mine,” said 16-year-old Luka Bakradze.
(Writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Richard Balmforth)