At the foot of the majestic Carpathian mountains, Petrila waits in dread for the closure of its coal mine, the oldest in Romania and the life force of a town struggling to survive.
“We are already the valley of tears, we don’t want to become the valley of death,” said one resident, referring to the Jiu Valley where Petrila lies, Romania’s main coal mining region where miners’ numbers have dwindled to only a fraction of those employed in the 1990s.
Petrila’s 153-year-old mine has not only been the town’s livelihood but its very identity. Petrila without mines would be like Bordeaux without its vineyards or Silicon Valley without its IT firms, locals say.
But pressure from the European Commission, the EU executive, on member governments to cut subsidies to loss-making mines means the one in Petrila, two elsewhere in Romania and several others across the 27-member bloc will be shut down by 2018. Demolition work has already started.
“It’s the age-old story of the deindustrialization of Europe,” said David Schwartz, a Bucharest director who recently drew attention for “Underground,” a play he and the well-known Romanian playwright Mihaela Michailov worked on for a year, giving voice to the miners and their families in this once-prosperous company town.
The EU’s plan is to shift subsidies from mines towards renewable energies. Up to 30,000 jobs, out of a total 100,000 in the EU mining sector, could be lost.
In Spain, angry miners have staged protests and clashed with police. But those in Romania appear resigned to their fate, still smarting from violent protests in 1990 that many feel stigmatised them wrongly.
That year, then president Ion Iliescu called some 10,000 Jiu Valley miners to Bucharest to end protests against his government, the first elected after the fall of the communist regime but one made up mostly of former communists, like himself.
The miners were severely criticized for using force against protestors but many today say those who took part were “manipulated.”
Communist-era mosaics at the Petrila mine are a reminder of its flourishing past before the economic decline of the last two decades.
In 1988 the town had some 4,000 miners, now there are 688. In the wider Jiu Valley, numbers have dropped from 50,000 to 7,600, according to Constantin Jujan, the director of the Petrila mine.
“In 1997, a wave of redundancies at the time meant people suddenly got a lot of money. But they weren’t ready, they spent, they set up businesses and got in debt, found themselves without homes, with nothing,” said local restaurant owner Elena Chelba, whose husband and father are both miners.
Today the unemployment rate in the town is more than 40 percent.
Charity shops proposing second-hand clothes, crockery and toys are testimony to the hard times.
“I don’t know if things can get any worse,” said Elena. “But if the mine closes things will not be rosy, so many people depend on it.”
Everyday, ignoring the danger, dozens of locals jump on the trains bringing coal to Petrila to steal a few lumps, either to keep warm or to sell.
One of them, who gave only his first name, Traian, collects what coal he finds on the tracks in red buckets — there is no way his pension of 200 euros ($244) a month can pay for heating.
Traian’s son has left Romania for Germany, and his daughter will join him for two months of seasonal work. Like many, Traian doesn’t complain for himself but worries about his children. Emigration is often seen as the only answer.
“My daughter’s future is not here,” said one miner solemnly, tramping out of the mine after a night’s work.
“Some families cannot pay their gas and electricity bills any more. We give them clothes so their children are not ashamed to go to school,” Florin Popescu, who runs the local branch of Save the Children, told AFP.
The center ensures that around 100 children get a hot meal as well as psychological and educational help.
“We know that we will have to leave because there is no work here. It’s sad for me because this is where I have grown up and where my friends are,” said Cristinel Homoc, a 15-year-old who dreams of becoming a footballer or a lawyer.
Some residents hope for better days in a region that they believe has immense tourism potential.
Stretching some 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) across Central Europe, the Carpathians are blessed with virgin forest, rich flora and wildlife including lynx and bears.
Romanian culture is also a draw. A local caricaturist, Ion Barbu, organizes festivals and has turned the childhood home of writer Ion D. Sirbu — a key opposition figure during Nicolae Ceausescu’s dictatorship — into a museum.
Barbu, like many other residents, wants to preserve the buildings at the mine site to create cultural and “industrial” tourism, to retain Petrila’s link with its prouder past.
Industrial tourism has worked in other areas: the UN’s cultural body Unesco designated three former mining sites in the Wallonia region of southern Belgium and one site in northern France as World Heritage sites.
But the residents’ dreams have met with opposition from the town’s deputy mayor Constantin Ramascanu, who would prefer to raze the site.
Rejecting all ideas of green tourism — even from the British heir to the throne, Prince Charles, who has tried to develop rural tourism in Romania — Ramascanu’s vision is a valley covered in hotels, casinos and quad-biking tracks.