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In Photos: Murder, Misery and Children in Albania’s Mining Industry

It’s rare enough that labor rights are respected for public employees in Albania, let alone for children working for warring gangsters.
Photo by VICE

This article originally appeared on VICE.

Violeta Koci is 23, and her wheelbarrow just broke. For the rest of the day she will have to carry the bags of rock and chromite on her back. She is six months pregnant.

"My doctor says I shouldn’t work, but what choice do I have?" she asks.

For many in Bulqize — a grey and dusty town about a four hour drive northeast of Albania’s capital Tirana — it’s all about survival. There are not that many jobs available and you take whatever work you can get.

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One job opportunity is found outside of the city’s chromium mines in the piles of rock that have been dug out when new tunnels and shafts have been excavated.

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Sifting through the rubble for pickings of chromite, Koci and day laborers like her can earn the equivalent $3 or $4 a day — on a good day, that is.

”We get about 20 Lek [40 cents] for every pound of pure chromite we collect,” says Shpendi Lloshi, 8, who is busy rummaging through the rubble looking for remains of the black gleaming mineral.

Once a booming mining town, Bulqize sits on one of the largest chromium reserves in the world. Since they first opened in the late 1940s, these mines have supplied roughly 18 million tons of chromium, an important metal in the production of stainless steel.

This was the backbone of Albania’s economy during the country’s half-century of communist rule.

Today, business is not what it used to be, but private enterprises are still extracting the precious metal, digging deeper into the ground and opening up new galleries.

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Albchrome, owned by Albanian oligarch Samir Mane, is a major employer in the town.

Alongside the large enterprises, there is another mining industry: an informal one, squeezing profits from some of the old abandoned shafts and the slag heaps dug out from the mines.

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This is where people like Koci and Lloshi work.

It’s Saturday, and Lloshi has been here since early morning, scuttling up and down the steep piles of sharp rocks, turning over stone after stone.

All the pickings of chromite or rocks with mineral residue he finds go into his white plastic bucket.

Although it’s late in the afternoon, Lloshi does not look tired or worn out. His father Guri, 37, is a professional miner, working underground extracting the ore, but on his days off he usually works together with Lloshi.

"I’m not worried about my son," he says, and gently ruffles the hair on Lloshi’s head.

Another boy, who doesn’t want to state his name, says he has been working here since he was nine years old. Now he’s 16. He looks far worse for wear than Lloshi — scrawny, with dark circles below his eyes and an exhausted gaze.

”I stayed in school for the first couple of years, but then I started working here full time every day to make money,” he says.

On this particular day, there are about 50 people working in the heaps of stone outside the mine — almost all of them are children, many just as young as Lloshi.

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One of them, a somewhat older boy wearing a dusty red t-shirt and a cheerful grin, is missing the thumb on his right hand. Accidents are common. Two years ago, a young boy died when there was a small landslide and the rocks came tumbling down on him.