Saturday, April 20, 2024
NewsRescue eludes Delanta’s desperate trapped opal miners

Rescue eludes Delanta’s desperate trapped opal miners

A breadwinner for two households – his own and that of his parents – Meragiyaw Abebe is an artisanal miner who depends on the rocky valleys of Delanta for his livelihood.

Located in the South Wollo Zone of the Amhara Regional State, Delanta Woreda boasts an abundance of opal ore. Though it is home to some of the country’s most extensive mines, the jagged landscape is unsuitable for the heavy machinery of large-scale miners, and the opal in the caves of Delanta is the domain of artisanal miners like Meragiyaw.

The dangerous work offers a meager average income of up to five thousand birr per mining expedition for Meragiyaw and his peers. An expedition can take anywhere between three days to a whole month, depending on their luck.

Meragiyaw relies on the opal mines to provide for his wife and infant child, as well as his parents, according to Kindye Tesfaye, a cousin of the miner.

Meragiyaw’s dreams of lifting his family out of poverty are now buried in the caves beneath the sharp cliffs in Delanta’s Kebele 18. He and a score of other miners have been trapped in the caves since the late hours of February 8, 2024.

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Six years of mining experience did not help Meragiyaw prevent the disaster, and several rescue attempts in the weeks since have not managed to save the more than 20 miners languishing in the caves.

“His whole family is in distress now,” Kindye told The Reporter. “It’s really difficult to explain.”

In his late 20s, Meragiyaw was also a helping hand on the family farm, which his father is unable to plow due to physical constraints.

Following the news of the cave collapse and reports of a massive boulder blocking the entrance, hundreds of residents in the area flocked to the site in an attempt to conduct a rescue operation. The throng of around 60 people, including Kindye, was thwarted by the difficult terrain.

Kindye recalls the ground on the cliffside was giving way to the weight of the rescue party, putting them in danger of falling to an almost certain death.

“It is very dangerous. We were almost falling down ourselves,” Kindye told The Reporter.

He describes the harrowing scenes as members of the rescue mission seemed to hear a voice through the rocks, which they assumed belonged to one of the trapped miners.

“We dug day and night towards the voices we heard. We just couldn’t get to them,” said Kindye.

Such collapses and rock slides are a common occurrence in the area. Similar incidents had taken place before, but the magnitude of the latest catastrophe sets it apart.

A couple of years ago, four artisanal miners were trapped under a cave in a very similar situation, but they were all rescued unhurt after 11 days of digging by locals.

It is nothing out of the ordinary to hear about miners being trapped for a day or two. In a recent incident, rescuers found two individuals trapped in a cave – one had died while the other had sustained physical injuries.

Meragiyaw and his peers have been trapped for more than two weeks. Eight of them, including Meragiyaw, are members of the South Wollo Zone Miners Association. Under the leadership of Tesfaye Agazh, the Association boasts a membership of close to 750 youth.

Tesfaye has been following the developments unwaveringly since day one. He has been coordinating rescue attempts and sharing any valuable information with the families of the trapped miners. His Association has thus far confirmed that eight of its members are stuck in the caves via dialogue with their family members.

However, Tesfaye fears there could be over a dozen others also trapped but remain unnamed because their families have yet to be identified.

Tesfaye observes the mines in the region were relatively safer before war broke out in northern Ethiopia, as only trained Association members were working with the necessary safety precautions.

Following the war, several people, including non-members, have been working in the mines – often carelessly, says Tesfaye. The illicit activity left the mines deformed and more dangerous to work in, Tesfaye told The Reporter.

Members of the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) joined the rescue efforts on Monday, 10 days following the accident. They immediately began using landmines to augment the digging already underway by locals, but to no avail as the cave’s depth made the attempts dangerous.

“There is a massive boulder by the cave they are in,” Tesfaye said. “The Defense team recommended the use of a tank to hit the boulder and throw it down the cliff to get them out from the cave.” 

The only obstacle now is that there is no tank available near the site.

The army officers informed the public of the challenge of transporting a tank to the site, Tesfaye told The Reporter.

“There are logistics problems in bringing the tank,” he said. “We are just sitting here losing hope.” 

Eyasu Yohannes is the head of communications for the administration of South Wollo Zone. He too is stumped by the boulder blocking access to the cave and impeding rescue efforts. 

He hopes sufficient oxygen and natural fresh water in the caves have helped the miners survive.

“This is the hope that is pushing us to keep searching for them,” he told The Reporter.

Extensive artisanal mining operations have been going on in the rocky mountains of Delanta for the last 13 years. Eyasu says the government has been cautioning miners to take all precautions against the kind of accident that befell Meragiyaw and his peers from day one.

A research paper published by Muauz Gidey Alemu (PhD) in 2018 focuses on the safety risks posed by artisanal small-scale opal mining in the mines of Delanta.

The paper reveals that most mine tunnels in the area are narrow and dug horizontally, going up to 180 meters deep. Miners are often forced to crawl on their bellies in the narrow tunnels, exposing them to respiratory diseases, according to the research.

Some miners have dug tunnels tall enough for them to stand in, creating caves up to three meters high, notes the paper.

“However, this comes with a much greater risk of cave collapse, incidents of which took the lives of more than 56 miners in only six months across three sites,” it reads.

The risks, however, do little to deter the youth of Delanta from making their way into the dark tunnels in search of the precious stones on which their livelihoods depend.

Kindye says the risks have discouraged him.

“I’ve more or less stopped going down there because of these risks,” he told The Reporter. “There’s no question I’d face the same thing [as Meragiyaw] if I were to do it more often.”

Kindye says if it weren’t for the dire economic situation, no one would dare to go into the caves.

The families of a few of the trapped miners have already given up any hope of rescue and some have been mourning the loss of their loved ones since Thursday.

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