Text and Photos by Inna Mkhitaryan
The town of Akhtala, in Armenia’s northern Lori region, is one of the oldest mining centers in the country. For 255 years, generations of Akhtala residents have worked in the local copper mines. Today, around 400 people from Akhtala and neighboring Shamlugh work at the Akhtala Mining and Processing Enterprise. Despite the dangerous working conditions and low salaries, locals cannot imagine their lives without the jobs the mining company provides.
Mines in Armenia are under pressure due to growing concerns over environmental damage. But for local residents, there is a double cost: the danger that the mines pose for every miner on the job and the growing fear that the mines may be destroying the very land their homes stand on.
For 57-year-old Susanna Sargsyan the biggest danger is the one facing the miners at work everyday.
"Every day miners risk their lives. There is a 50/50 chance that they will come home alive in the evening or be killed by a landslide. There have already been many accidents and landslides in the mine. It is not a safe job,” she says.
I was in Akhtala 11 years ago to photograph the miners. Recently I returned to find out how their lives have changed—specifically whether the quality of their lives has improved during these 11 years.
As soon as I reached the main square, I showed one of the photos I took during the last trip, a portrait of Pyotr Markin, to the men sitting there. While the men were trying to identify the person in the photo, blue-eyed Pyotr, 69, approached us.
Pyotr is Russian. His family moved to Akhtala in 1962. He worked in the mine for 50 years, retiring in 2015 only after a landslide in the underground mine hurt his leg.
“We had very good working conditions during the Soviet Union. After the [Soviet Union] collapsed, the mine was virtually abandoned. Sometime later, it started operating again, and even though the management changed several times, we didn’t feel much difference. The mine is very rich, but the people are poor. Many young people gather in this square and waste away their days, because they say there are no jobs at the mine—there are no vacancies," Pyotr says.