At the foot of the majestic Carpathian mountains, Petrila waits in dread for the closure of its coal mine, the oldest in Romania and the life force of a town struggling to survive.
“We are already the valley of tears; we don’t want to become the valley of death,” one resident said, referring to the Jiu Valley where Petrila lies, Romania’s main coal mining region where miners’ numbers have dwindled to only a fraction of those employed in the 1990s.
Petrila’s 153-year-old mine has not only been the town’s livelihood, but its very identity. Petrila without mines would be like Bordeaux without its vineyards or Silicon Valley without its IT firms, locals say.
However, pressure from the European Commission, the EU executive, on member governments to cut subsidies to lossmaking mines means the one in Petrila, two elsewhere in Romania and several others across the 27-member bloc will be shut down by 2018. Demolition work has already started.
“It’s the age-old story of the deindustrialization of Europe,” said David Schwartz, a Bucharest director who recently drew attention for Underground, a play he and the well-known Romanian playwright Mihaela Michailov worked on for a year, giving voice to the miners and their families in this once-prosperous company town.
The EU’s plan is to shift subsidies from mines toward renewable energies. Up to 30,000 jobs, out of a total 100,000 in the EU mining sector, could be lost.
In Spain, angry miners have staged protests and clashed with police, but those in Romania appear resigned to their fate, still smarting from violent protests in 1990 that many feel stigmatized them wrongly.
That year, then-Romanian president Ion Iliescu called about 10,000 Jiu Valley miners to Bucharest to end protests against his government, the first elected after the fall of the communist regime, but one made up mostly of former communists, like himself.
The miners were severely criticized for using force against protesters, but many today say those who took part were “manipulated.”
Communist-era mosaics at the Petrila mine are a reminder of its flourishing past before the economic decline of the last two decades.
In 1988, the town had about 4,000 miners, now there are 688. In the wider Jiu Valley, numbers have dropped from 50,000 to 7,600, Petrila mine director Constantin Jujan said.
“In 1997, a wave of redundancies at the time meant people suddenly got a lot of money. But they weren’t ready; they spent, they set up businesses and got in debt, found themselves without homes, with nothing,” said local restaurant owner Elena Chelba, whose husband and father are both miners.
Today the unemployment rate in the town is more than 40 percent.
Charity shops proposing second-hand clothes, crockery and toys are testimony to the hard times.
“I don’t know if things can get any worse,” Chelba said. “But if the mine closes, things will not be rosy; so many people depend on it.”
Everyday, ignoring the danger, dozens of locals jump on the trains bringing coal to Petrila to steal a few lumps, either to keep warm or to sell.
One of them, who gave only his first name, Traian, collects what coal he finds on the tracks in red buckets — there is no way his pension of 200 euros (US$244) a month can pay for heating.
Traian’s son has left Romania for Germany, and his daughter will join him for two months of seasonal work. Like many, Traian doesn’t complain for himself, but worries about his children. Emigration is often seen as the only answer.