Photographers' Blog

Underground with Bosnia’s women miners

Breza, Bosnia and Herzegovina

By Dado Ruvic

Since I started photography, miners have always been an attractive subject matter for me. They provide all photographic elements in one place. Throughout the years, I have often worked on stories below ground for the local newspaper, spending shifts with miners. As March 8th neared, I came up with the idea to do something different related to International Women’s Day. The story, which I had planned a few years earlier but had no reason to shoot, was now ready: Women miners.

GALLERY: LONE FEMALE MINERS OF BOSNIA

One morning I went into the Breza mine and the first person that greeted me at the door was a very strong, smiling woman named Sakiba. I felt the spirit of mining through her. After she finished the morning’s preparation and made a few phone calls, we went to the change rooms. After I awkwardly donned mining clothes, our day started, and a crowd of dirty particles were smiling on my camera. At the entrance to the pit, there was a second miner Šemsa, waiting for us.

Both women have been working in the mine for over 20 years. Every wall, every pillar, every soul in this mine politely bowed to them. We descended in the elevator to about 400 meters below ground. About one year ago a major fire broke out in the mine and one of their friends died. During the time we spent together Šemsa said she finds it difficult to descend into the pit — it stirs very bad memories that are hard to deal with. However, she comforted herself in believing that death was meant for everyone, including her friend.

A few hours later we walked into the pit where the miners dug continuously. The two women tirelessly measured air pressure, air flow, and the presence of all kinds of gases, even helping their colleagues. Although these days I wasn’t in a laughing mood, hanging out with Sakiba was simply unforgettable! She is an endless source of humor, with an original character and original gestures.

Their day starts early. Sakiba usually wakes at 6am and eats breakfast. Her husband, a former miner, then drives her to the mine. Šemsa’s situation is slightly different — she has cows. Her day starts by milking the cows, then drinking coffee and a walk to work. Often she goes with Sakiba. This routine has been continuing for more than 20 years…

Made in Chile

The first 17 days in August after the miners disappeared underground are spent in silent vigilance, almost in secrecy. We think this will be just another of so many mine disasters that happen around the world, with some anxious waiting followed by a great deal of mourning. The respect for the pain of the 33 families is felt all across that stretch of desert – dubbed Camp Hope. The pain of that vigilance gives way to an outburst of rage against the mine’s owners, who never appear nor give any credible explanation for the disaster.  Rumors of a rescue plan without details cause more confusion as it all seems improvised. When the collapsed mine tunnel is determined to be impossible to reopen, the rescuers pull back as it seems there is no one alive to rescue. The families sink into uncertainty.

(Top-Bottom) Policemen escort the co-owner (C) of the San Jose copper and gold mine where miners are trapped in Copiapo. Relatives of trapped miners wait outside of the mine for news of them in Copiapo.

“All 33 of us are fine in the shelter.” My family lunch ends abruptly as we see the slip of torn paper on live television. The miners are alive 17 days after their tunnel collapsed 700 meters underground. Six hours later I’m in Camp Hope far from our lunch table photographing the families celebrating. The families learn to laugh again.

(Top-Bottom) A member of the media looks at a computer screen with the image of a note sent by one of the 33 miners trapped inside the San Jose mine in Copiapo. Relatives of trapped miners react after learning that the 33 miners were found alive in Copiapo.

A day photographing at Camp Hope soon becomes a routine so natural I feel like part of the neighborhood. I park my car, grab my cameras, and greet the families who are also part of the landscape. I greet Maria and Elizabeth, sisters of trapped miner Dario Segovia, who are conversing and joking with everyone around. Photographers gather in front of their awning to cover reactions to whatever is the news of the day. Together with them is Cristina Nuñez, fiancee of miner Claudio Yañez, who proposed marriage to her through a message sent from the depths of the mine. She accepted immediately. They’ve already been together for a lifetime. Cristina is boisterous and likes to be noticed.