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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The people these kids work for are locally referred to as pirates.
They are local businessmen who have been awarded concessions for extracting and exporting chromium. They buy the minerals off the kids for a pittance and then ship it off, mostly to China.
These mining tycoons take no responsibility for their workers and are often involved in other illegal business activities. They also fight each other over control of the chromium business.
Just a month before I visited Bulqize, one of the city’s mining pirates was murdered.
Gjin Nica, 35, was driving his Yamaha motorcycle on the outskirts of Tirana when he was ambushed and sprayed with machine gun fire. Police suspect rivalry over the chromium business in Bulqize to be the motive behind the killing.
Nica had been suspected of complicity in the recent murders of two rival chromium businessmen from Bulqize: one in January and another one in September last year. Nica had recently been detained on charges of forgery, but was set free two weeks before he was assassinated.
Bulqize’s shady mining business illustrates Albania’s weak rule of law. It’s rare enough that labor rights are respected and upheld for public employees in Tirana, let alone for children working for warring gangsters in godforsaken towns in the middle of nowhere.
Corruption is what makes this all possible.
The officials who award the mining pirates concessions for extracting chromium will not go without reward. In Transparency International’s corruption-index Albania dropped to 116th place last year, down from 95th place in 2011.
This explains why this murky part of the economy can chug along undisturbed, year after year.
Poverty provides the businesses in this informal economy with a never-dwindling workforce. At least one eighth of the population of Albania lives on less than $2 a day, and despite the fact that the town rests on such abundant riches, the situation is no less dire in Bulqize.
In a concrete housing block just below the slag heaps lives Nexhmedin Nezha, 42, with his wife, three children, and another family who shares the space with them.
Entering the dark hall feels like stepping into a cellar. Moisture dripping, the air heavy and humid — the ragged sofas have a damp feel and a moldy smell. Nezha’s welcome is kind and warm, but, arms convulsing, he is unable to perform a handshake.
His accident happened 20 years ago. He had just started his shift when the mine caved in. He was trapped for eight hours, not knowing if he would survive.
Finally, he was saved, but since then he has been suffering from anxiety-related symptoms that could indicate post-traumatic stress disorder and has not been able to go back to work.
Nezha worked for one of the larger mining operators — not the pirates — and therefore at least has a pension to live off of. But it’s not much. His medicines, which keep him from having hysterical fits, cost $23 each month. His monthly pension about $130.
For the family to be able to survive, their two oldest children have had to take up work collecting chromite alongside the other kids behind their house. Just like Shpendi Lloshi, neither of them is a yet a teenager.
Many families are in similar situations.
According to the Confederation of Trade Unions of Albania, 88 miners have died in their line of work only in the last five years. Many more have been severely injured or crippled.
No one really knows how many deaths and injuries occur in the informal mining industry. This hasn't stopped the kids of Nezha and many others from signing up for work.