Life of Labor Ends in Flames for Unpaid Ukrainian Miner

ASSOCIATED PRESS

On a bleak Monday morning in December, even the dawn seemed to have forgotten the drab coal towns of eastern Ukraine, where the miners had not been paid in months.

Dozens of striking miners were asleep, huddling in threadbare tents in Luhansk. The men had been on strike for five months over back wages. Tired police stood guard at the local government building, watching the strikers' makeshift camp.

There was a noise. Something fell on the ground. Then a ball of fire exploded next to a tree. Suddenly there were arms and legs kicking out from the flames and screams piercing the chilly air.

Oleksandr Mykhalevych, a miner, had set himself afire. He remained in critical condition for two weeks with burns over most of his body.

He died on Dec. 28, at age 35.

He had been on strike to demand 3,600 hryvna, about $1,050, for nearly a year of back wages.

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Gray apartment buildings tower in a semicircle over a snowy courtyard at one end of Krasnodon. The elevator is not working, and there is no light in the stairway. Litter covers the concrete steps. Graffiti mars the shabby walls.

A tiny living room and two bedrooms on the eighth floor were Mykhalevych's home, a home similar to those of thousands of coal miners across Ukraine.

A grainy enlarged passport photograph in a cheap frame shows the ordinary-looking ex-army officer, who played guitar, wrote poems to his children and brought roses for his wife.

Lyudmyla, his widow, adjusts a burning candle in an empty mayonnaise jar in front of her Sasha's portrait. A glass of vodka sits nearby, covered with a slice of bread, a traditional offering to honor the dead.

He left three children--two boys and a girl.

The youngest son, 13-year-old Oleksiy, is still in school. Serhiy, 18, Lyudmyla's son from her first marriage, is the man of the house. Oksana, who will turn 15 in March, brings a handkerchief to her sobbing mother.

"He said, 'When I come back from the strike, we could have a fourth child,"' Lyudmyla says through her tears.

Lyudmyla, a small, lean woman of 40, cries a lot these days.

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Remembering the old days, Lyudmyla says she would wait up for Oleksandr to return from the overnight shift. Walking from the bus stop, he would see the light in her window. Fellow miners would say, "Look, your lady already is waiting." And he would start running.

People teased Oleksandr for taking a wife five years his senior, and with a child by another man.

So they moved to Krasnodon, renting an 86-square-foot room. The housing was poor, but they had hope--Ukraine's miners were earning good money in the Soviet days of the late 1980s.

Oleksandr worked hard. He helped battle two mine fires. Eventually the family was given a place in a hostel for coal workers, then an apartment of their own.

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The 1991 Soviet collapse spelled trouble for the coal industry in Ukraine, which became an independent but poor nation. There were no more government subsidies for the mines. The government said it had to cut back because the mines were inefficient and badly outdated. The miners' wages were paid late and then, for months at a time, not paid at all.

Oleksandr left for Magadan in northeastern Russia.

There, in a region once dotted by Soviet prison camps, he worked for a year as a gold digger. The money he brought home was enough to buy a garage and a small car.

For a while, Oleksandr and Lyudmyla sold gasoline. Then Oleksandr returned to work in a coal mine. For several months his wages were paid, but the delays resumed. The miners continued to work.

"How many times Sasha would say, 'You're so tiny. I'm ashamed that you have to support me through all those years.' And I told him, 'You're not to blame; you work for days on end, not even taking holidays," Lyudmyla says.

Finally, disgruntled miners began going on strike last summer to demand their back pay.

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Oleksandr was one of 200 miners picketing the regional administration building in Luhansk. For months they lived in tents but failed to get their money. Oleksandr talked two desperate workers out of plans to burn themselves to death.

Then something snapped inside him.

Oleksandr was home resting when he said he must return to the strike, that talks with officials were scheduled. "He fell on the bed and was tearing the pillow with his teeth, shouting that he did not want to leave but had to," Lyudmyla says, sobbing.

That Sunday, she found a note under the pillow. "Please forgive me,' she read, and thought he was apologizing for not staying the weekend with his children.

Later, in a Luhansk hospital, she saw her husband just once, but there was nothing to see--just a bundle of bloodstained bandages.

"If only he stayed alive, even in a wheelchair, I would've taken care of him," she says. "Perhaps he is a hero. I'm proud of him, but I can't justify him. He left us."

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Another letter was found in a tent at the strikers' campsite. Both his notes were written neatly on pages torn from school notebooks.

"I can no longer suffer this mockery," Oleksandr wrote to his wife and children. "I love you dearly. . . . I want to live very much--but not like that."

Several days after Oleksandr set himself afire, the authorities brought money to Luhansk during the night and paid the protesters. And Oleksandr's family.

There was a funeral, with a coffin paid for by Oleksandr's mine. City officials demanded money for burial arrangements. The police tried in vain to persuade the family not to have a public funeral.

Lyudmyla was offered a job at a milk plant or a bread factory. The meager salaries there are at least being paid on time.

"They say I would get used to it, but now I miss him even more. I'm more and more attracted to him," she says. "I put his photo under the pillow. I thought he would come to me in my sleep, but he didn't."

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The imprint of Oleksandr's burning body was still visible on that tree in Luhansk when another miner, Oleksandr Konariev, 37, a father of three, burned himself to death on Jan. 22 to protest the humiliation of not being paid.

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