Georgian mining town offers little alternative to grim and deadly job

TBILISI, Dec 5 (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, 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.

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Georgian town marred by mining tragedies
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Georgian town marred by mining tragedies

Miners wait in a train before entering the Mindeli mine of Saknakhshiri coal mining company in Tkibuli, Georgia, July 13, 2018. 

(REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili)

Miner David Tsnobiladze, 20, rests in a changing room at the Mindeli mine of Saknakhshiri coal mining company in Tkibuli, Georgia, July 13, 2018. David has worked at the mine for two years. His father has worked at the mine for 20 years and his grandfather worked there for 34 years. "I always wanted to work at the mine ... It's a difficult job, but interesting as I learn something new every day," said Tsnobiladze. He admits that many other young residents of Tkibuli don't share his attitude. "Many of my peers are unemployed, but still don't want to work at the mine as are either afraid or lazy."

(REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili)

A miner walks to enter the Mindeli mine of Saknakhshiri coal mining company in Tkibuli, Georgia, July 12, 2018. 

(REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili)

Miners change their clothes after work in a changing room at the Mindeli mine of Saknakhshiri coal mining company in Tkibuli, Georgia, July 12, 2018. 

(REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili)

A Soviet-era apartment building is seen in Tkibuli, Georgia, July 20, 2018. 

(REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili)

Men play backgammon on a street in Tkibuli, Georgia, July 13, 2018. 

(REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili)

A woman uses ATM at the entrance of the Mindeli mine of Saknakhshiri coal mining company in Tkibuli, Georgia, July 12, 2018. 

(REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili)

Miner David Kublashvili, 38, waits to enter the Mindeli mine of Saknakhshiri coal mining company in Tkibuli, Georgia, July 12, 2018.

(REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili)

A boy exercises at a gym in Tkibuli, Georgia, November 8, 2018. 

(REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili)

Miner David Tsnobiladze, 20, walks after his shift at the Mindeli mine of Saknakhshiri coal mining company in Tkibuli, Georgia, July 13, 2018. David has worked at the mine for two years. His father has worked at the mine for 20 years and his grandfather worked there for 34 years. Tsnobiladzes believe the mine is the main part of the town. "It is the spine. Without the mine, the town would not exist," he said. 

(REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili)

People mourn during a funeral of miners who died during an accident at the Mindeli mine of Saknakhshiri coal mining company, at a church in Tkibuli, Georgia, July 21, 2018. 

(REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili)

A Soviet-era apartment building is seen in Tkibuli, Georgia, July 20, 2018.

(REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili)

Kung fu coach Oleg Panchulidze trains a boy in Tkibuli, Georgia, November 8, 2018. 

(REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili)

Theatre staff prepare for a movie screening in Tkibuli, Georgia, November 8, 2018. 

(REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili)

Miners work at the Mindeli mine of Saknakhshiri coal mining company in Tkibuli, Georgia, May 20, 2010.

(REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili)

A man exercises in the morning at a stadium in Tkibuli, Georgia, July 21, 2018. 

(REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili)

Lizi, 8, mourns at the casket of her grandfather Mikheil Gamezardashvili, 55, a miner who died during an accident at the Mindeli mine of Saknakhshiri coal mining company in Tkibuli, Georgia, July 20, 2018.

(REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili)

A car is parked on a street, outside a shop in Tkibuli, Georgia, July 12, 2018. 

(REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili)

Miners work at the Mindeli mine of Saknakhshiri coal mining company in Tkibuli, Georgia, May 20, 2010. 

(REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili)

Retired miner Guram Gamezardashvili, 54, attends a funeral of his cousin Mikheil Gamezardashvili, a 55, a miner who died during an accident at the Mindeli mine of Saknakhshiri coal mining company in Tkibuli, Georgia, July 20, 2018. Guram got injured in the mine in 2010 and retired. His son Pavle died in the mine earlier this year. "There isn't any other job in the town that's why we all work at the mine. We need more attention from the government, the safety rules must be tightened. The closing of the mine is not a solution, so many people will starve in that case," he said. 

(REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili)

A train carries miners into the Mindeli mine of Saknakhshiri coal mining company in Tkibuli, Georgia, July 13, 2018. 

(REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili)

Women work at a local sewing factory Miller and Company in Tkibuli, Georgia, September 5, 2018.

(REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili)

Girls attend a dance class in Tkibuli, Georgia, November 8, 2018. 

(REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili)

A miner carries a gas detector at the Mindeli mine of Saknakhshiri coal mining company in Tkibuli, Georgia, July 12, 2018.

(REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili)

Youth swim in a swimming pool in Tkibuli, Georgia, July 20, 2018. 

(REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili)

Retired miner Guram Gamezardashvili, 54, who got injured in a mine, stands at a grave of his son Pavle who died during an accident at the Mindeli mine of Saknakhshiri coal mining company in Tkibuli, Georgia, November 7, 2018. Guram got injured in the mine in 2010 and retired. His son Pavle died in the mine earlier this year. "There isn't any other job in the town that's why we all work at the mine. We need more attention from the government, the safety rules must be tightened. The closing of the mine is not a solution, so many people will starve in that case," he said. 

(REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili)

Miner Gocha Gabunia, 34, waits in a train before entering the Mindeli mine of Saknakhshiri coal mining company in Tkibuli, Georgia, July 13, 2018. Gocha has worked at the mine for 15 years. "If there was a chance to find another job in this city, nobody would work at the mine," he said. "Once I was buried alive in a mine and was saved 30 minutes later." 

(REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili)

A woman holds a baby on a street in Tkibuli, Georgia, July 20, 2018. 

(REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili)

Men drink wine in memory of miners who died during accidents at Mindeli mine of Saknakhshiri coal mining company, at a cemetery in Tkibuli, Georgia, November 7, 2018. 

(REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili)

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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.

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 grey 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 center 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)

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