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Illegal Miners Risk Life And Limb To Dig For Bosnia's Black Gold

With an estimated 10 billion tons in geological reserves, coal is a vitally important part of Bosnia-Herzegovina's economy.

Besides supplying local industrial facilities such as steel mills, state mines also fuel all the country's power plants.

More than 80 percent of the country's coal is taken from open-pit mines close to the surface.

Given Bosnia's soaring unemployment rate of more than 40 percent, as well as the relative ease with which coal can be extracted, it is perhaps little wonder that illegal mining is quite widespread in the former Yugoslav republic.

Most impromptu mining takes place in rich coalfields near the city of Zenica.

The unofficial miners often dig for coal with their bare hands and use improvised containers such as old bathtubs to transport it.

At around $4 a bag, illegally extracted coal is considerably cheaper than that supplied by state mines, so these bootleggers seem to have no trouble finding a market for their product.

They also sell it in quantities that people can afford.

"Those that don't have money for three tons of coal but they need three bags of it come to us," a coal miner called Grof told a reporter in 2011.

Not surprisingly, the makeshift mines can be quite hazardous places to work, and the workers are not exactly protected by worker-safety regulations.

"The job is very dangerous," says Grof. "[One] little mistake and in a wink you get buried without anyone knowing about it."

Nonetheless, as long as they still have plenty of buyers for the coal they filch, there seems to be no shortage of people willing to put themselves in harm's way while digging for Bosnia's black gold.

"True, it is dangerous and risky," says Grof. "But it pays off in the end."

-- Coilin O'Connor

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