Balan: A City At A Crossroads

Feb 20, 14 • Good ReadsNo CommentsRead More »

What Romanian miners do when their mine is closed down

Text: Adina Branciulescu

The abandoned copper mine from Balan. Photo: Bogdan Croitoru

The abandoned copper mine from Balan. Photo: Bogdan Croitoru

I

Liviu Carausu’s nickname is Mami (“Mommy”). Everyone in Balan knows him as Mami because underground he was the most worrisome of the miners. He is 39 years old; he started working in the mine at 18 and was a mining electrician for 19 years, 3 months, and about 20 days. He looks younger than he is – only his grizzled hair reveals his age. Mami is one of the many laid off from the local mining company; a week and three days have passed since he was last fired.

He realizes that the financial aid for the former employees that varies from 4000 to7000$ according to seniority, and the compensatory monthly salary added together with unemployment, only represents a temporary solution. “I won’t stay like this, I can’t…I’m tired of so much rest. I haven’t worked in two weeks. I can’t sleep at night. Last night at about three I turned on the TV.” Compared to his former colleagues, Mami is lucky because he knows a trade.

He says he could even build a plane if you give him the blueprint. But now, he’s lost in thought. He is quiet, puffing every now and then from the cigarettes he should give up. Three years ago he was diagnosed with silicosis – the legacy of years spent underground. “During communism, miners were a privileged class. Now, when your colleagues ask you where you’re going, you say ‘Back…‘cause back then it was better,’” says Mami.

Back then, miners’ salaries were far higher than those of engineers or any other field. They would go out on the town and drink themselves stupid. “If I had that money now, I’d buy a new Volvo,” says the former mining electrician.

The underground taught him the lesson of camaraderie. “There were instances where mortal enemies cut each other – people would cut each other, beat each other up, and say ‘I’ll get you!’ But the guy who was cut up saved the one that cut him, he didn’t turn him in when he could have said ‘Let him rot in jail!’ There were instances where, for example, a man was caught in the material that fell around there, and when he saw that boulders started pouring down, he told them – ‘cause everyone else was digging with their hands and whatever else they had around there to get him out – ‘Get out! It’s falling!’ As soon as they got out, the whole thing came down over him. All he had time to say, “Tell my family I loved them!”

II

When copper mining started in Balan in 1785, people came from the neighboring towns like Sandominic, Tomesti and Odorhei and built little houses here like shacks, while others preferred to go home every night. In 1801, qualified miners came, followed a year later by whole families. The mine owners financed the elementary school that the students abandoned to work in the mine, and, along with the miners, paid for the doctors. The closing down of the mine this year is not an exceptional case. It has been closed down several times before, either because of the low amount of metal in the minerals extracted, copper imported from abroad at cheaper prices than that from Balan, or misunderstandings related to work conditions. Meanwhile, the population has increased at a constant rate, and in 1968, the small town was declared a city.

In the ‘80s, the director of the mine, Racz Atilla, asked Tibor Kristaly, a close friend, to conduct a study that ended up having uncomfortable results for that time period. Tibor Kristaly was the mine’s psychologist, conducted sociological studies, and directed short educational films about work safety. Furthermore, he was the editor-in-chief of the bilingual publication Gazeta minerului/ Banyasz Hirado. The result of the study was that miners are not resistant to tiredness, a major reason being inadequate alimentation. In short, one of the conclusions was that the miners were undernourished. The results were never published, but reached a certain Constantinescu, a secret police agent who was responsible for the company, and who told Kristaly that he had come to “very dangerous conclusions.”

III

In the past few years, the mine could no longer sell its product and its exploitation became costly. “You produce 1,000 lei but you spend 4,000,” explains the last director of the mine, Laszlo Szasz. The Balan authorities expect that soon the thievery of scrap-iron will start, under the pretext of cleaning the mine, especially because the underground enclosure will hide the thefts. After the ecological restoration, everything that was once part of the Balan mining company will be put up for auction and sold to the community, and if there are no buyers, the buildings will be demolished.

IV

For the community, the mayor of Balan, Mihai Meres, foresees the following scenario, “Two years of standby (government “reaction” designating a period in which former employees will receive compensatory salaries). Afterward, private initiatives will appear, and after that, with favorable circumstances, you end up with powerful investors that create 300, 400 jobs.” Mihai Meres is 34 years old, serving his second term, and comes from a mining family, which means a lot here. He is charismatic and he seems to be set on working. For now all he can do is make a clean and civilized city out of Balan, and, for the time being, he is proud of his policies’ results.

“Show me one paper on the ground, and I’ll eat it,” he exclaims one Sunday morning on one of his inspection tours around the city. “I’m not comparing us with Zlatna, with Valea Jiului! We have to be different! The government hit us systematically. But since 1997 ­– when the first workers were laid off – we gained something: now we have ten years of experience!” His words sound like a promise.

When it was first rumored that the mine would be closed down, people were scared. They thought it’d be locked up and that’d be the end. They couldn’t stand the incertitude and took action. “They’d say ‘ok, it’s over, they’re closing everything down! With out any warning!’” says Cofari Marioara, a former mine employee.

“We got scared and went and blocked a road. One of the main roads, from Miercurea Ciuc to Targu Mures. We had a union leader, a miner, but she was a woman, and we stopped a train and nothing moved for about for hours. And the gendarmes came. But listen to this, those clever gendarmes! One troop started from Targu Mures, another from Sfantu Gheorghe and they caught us in the middle. And a huge scene broke out, a fight…We were there like sparrows, nothing in our hands. The next day in Balan you saw broken arms, heads, jaws. And after all that, they closed down part of the mine with no talk of compensation. Nothing! Just unemployment!”

V

 Marioara is 44 years old. She is a hearty woman, she laughs with gusto, she has a sharp mind and explications for everything that happens around her and in the world. Her life’s story: she was sent by the Communist Party to Bucharest, to the Stefan Gheorghiu Academy, where got caught up in the Revolution of ’89. She returned to Balan, disillusioned, and has worked in the company’s mechanic shop ever since. She used to say she would be the last person to leave the mine, but now, she’s haunted by the idea that she doesn’t have anything to do. The money she will receive she’ll put in the bank, but she doesn’t know how to fill her time. After tens of years during which she worked eight hours a day in the company, she knows every corner and every machine. Her gaze falls upon the desolate image that rests at her feet: overturned wagons, patches of iron bands, railroad tracks, and old equipment lie like skeletons. “There’s nothing you can do! If you don’t invest, nothing! And to work with 60, 70 year-old machines! You can’t! I just took a look over here…it’s like it were in Iraq.”

In this situation, the mayor’s message to the people attempts to be positive, to cultivate an image of a community whose identity is not determined strictly by the mine and who needs to move on. For this reason, this year the citywide festival took place on June 16, the day on which the mine was officially closed down. But the lively atmosphere was not enjoyed by all the city’s inhabitants.

“The last time I got fired, I took a picture when I went in, and I didn’t take when I left. On the way out, I told the boys, ‘Come on, guys, let’s go drink a beer, I’m buying.’ On my honor, none of them came. I felt like hitting my head against the wall. I mean, is it that bad? For none of them to come drink a beer? Before, the first think you would ask was, ‘You buying a beer?’ or ‘Come on I’m buying a round!’ So that was that…I didn’t have anyone to get drunk with. I swear, I felt the need to drink. Not as a refuge, but as revenge,” says Liviu Carausu. After a few moments, he continues in the same gentle voice, “Before, we used to say, ‘Let’s go to Aurica, up there where there’s that green awning.’ We’d go there, or for a pizza. It was right where we went to bathe, a bathhouse that had a concrete table and we called it ‘the morgue.’ We’d say we’re going to drink at the morgue.”

VI

“They watch us and they make complaints about the smallest wrong move. Even the fact that we go for a beer. To some people it’s offensive,” says Robert Kovacs, one of the few young people that make up the mayor Mihai Meres‘ “guard.” He is only 24 years old and at the mayor’s office he is in charge of financial projects and the promoting the city. “But, I mean, I wouldn’t want to be in their situation,” he admits. Robert puts his hopes in the various “requalification” courses he coordinates for bricklayers, carpenters, and agro-tourism, which he thinks are serious options for former workers. “As long as the company was around, we had less success, because people would say to themselves, ‘We’re staying here. How many times did they say they were closing us down and then didn’t?’ And people weren’t interested anymore; they weren’t motivated to look for other alternatives. Now, people will be more motivated to look for alternatives. There will be a more serious participation in the courses.”

The mayor’s office is also looking for other projects to finance, especially those dealing with NGOs, small businesses and legal groups, and in the past two years, despite initial reservations, people have started to pay attention to these efforts as well. “The community – including the authorities – has been hard to break. There have been cases where people refused to participate in projects that benefited the buildings in which they lived, even though it was eminently necessary,” remembers Robi. Meanwhile, the mayor implies that as long as he is in office, Balan will survive, even if the laws of development do not favor every one. “The city’s development project isn’t done based on the level of poverty of the city. People have to adapt.”

VII

 But there is one subject on which everyone has agreed, without reservation: tourism is the surest way to develop Balan. Without knowing the difficulty of promotion activities, instinct dictates to the people that the picturesque landscape of the area could bring them money. Authorities are working on securing housing for tourists and on developing local tourism while, at the same time, fighting a shrinking battle with representatives from the neighboring commune, Sandominic, for rights in the administration of a very nearby tourist attraction, Piatra Unica. Their biggest grievances are that they cannot intervene in the restoration of the cabins that are becoming more run-down with each passing day, and that they have no rights to the Cheile Bicazului National Reserve – Hasmas. According to Robert Kovaks, in the event that “you can’t apply the idea with the hotels on the hill and the motels, so why even think of it?” – agro-tourism seems to be the only viable solution. But the locals are most passionate about picking mushrooms, and three months out of the year are dedicated to this occupation. “God gave us a chance with these mushrooms,” says the mayor himself. Many mushrooms grow in the area, and during the harvest season, entire families go to pick them. Starting at five in the morning, the streets are swarming with people, equipped with nets and bags, headed towards the nearby hills. A Spanish investor, who took advantage of the area’s potential, built a mushroom packaging plant on the outskirts of the city.

The present situation has brought out the entrepreneurial spirit of the city’s Hungarian inhabitants. In Balan half of population is of Romanian origin and half of Hungarian origin.
“Ever since the beginning, simple Romanians and Hungarians lived here together, without taking into account political or economic interests. We don’t need political interference to achieve what we have proposed, just understanding and efficient, concrete help. Balan has become an economic, social, and demographic guinea pig”, concludes Meres.

The mayor says that the UDMR party acts in a destructive manner here, looking to “repurify the area.” There is an unspoken sadness in his voice. But what sparks envy in Romanians is the unity and the initiative of the Hungarians. Unified and endowed with strength of character, they seem to have been able to keep their cool during this situation and to have better overcome it. “Beyond being Romanian or Hungarian, I am a citizen of this world,” says Mr. Berszan, who, together with his wife and two sons, has a pension in Balan. Even though the boys are fresh out of high school and just passed their baccalaureate this year, they are responsible for the pension’s administration. They are two of the few inhabitants who know exactly what they will be doing in the near future and in what they will invest. Their greatest satisfaction is that even though they just opened it last winter, the pension is sought-after by tourists from Romania and abroad, especially Hungarians and Germans.

In contrast with the Berszans, if he could do whatever he wanted, the former mining electrition Liviu Caeausu would become a chef or a jeweler. But those seeking workers have come with offers in road-building, in carpentry, and in agro-tourism. These alternatives were greeted unenthusiastically by the newly unemployed, who preferred the option of working in the country or abroad, usually in Spain or Italy, or to simply sit and wait to see what tomorrow brings. Not even the financial help they will soon receive and not even the freedom to do what they want in the future can cheer up these miners who now have to learn to live in a different way.

VIII

Time seems to have stood still in Balan. It’s the same scene every morning, afternoon, and evening, this week or the next. The few people that see each other in town, always the same faces, hang out under the umbrellas at the poorly maintained outdoor cafes. Of all of them, three are three most popular: the one across the street from the mayor’s office, a pizzeria where they haven’t served pizza for a long time, “At Aurica’s” next to the mine, and the one in the center of town, Ghiocelul’s pastry shop, which hasn’t been a pastry shop in a long time.

A little park with no more than five or six benches is the most popular place for a game of chess or backgammon for the elderly who sit in the same position for hours on end. Only the children bring life to Balan, with their loud laughter and games behind the apartment buildings. No one stops in front of the store windows in town – a little bigger than boutiques – and they don’t ask what will happen to the buildings that once had a specific purpose but are now closed with pieces of cardboard against the windows. Balan is only two kilometers long, the entire length of which can be traveled by foot in a half an hour, and each one of the 8,000 inhabitants, although they do not greet each other every time they cross paths, know each other. But the calm atmosphere of a quiet mountain town is just a thin crust that hides the true state of the locals.

* Balan: A City at a Crossroads is a feature story written in 2009 by Adina Branciulescu and photographed by Bogdan Croitoru