Chegutu, Zimbabwe – For 12 days, Jane Mucheni and dozens of other women slept on the floor under a blue tent just outside Bay Horse Mine, a disused gold mine in Chegutu, about 110km (70 miles) west of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare.
The women were waiting for their sons and husbands – declared missing after the mine collapsed on September 30 – to resurface either dead or alive. Nine people had died while 22 others were rescued until the government called off the search to retrieve the trapped miners, angering grieving relatives of those still missing.
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“We still have up to 30 people that are underground at the moment,” Daniel Garwe, the acting minister of local government said on Wednesday. “The ground is moving which is threatening the lives of rescue teams. Operations have been stopped for now until a suitable area to enter the ground is established.”
But the latest development has made the women distraught, including Mucheni whose sons France, 23, and Tinashe, 17, went underground two weeks ago, a day before Bay Horse caved in. They are yet to be found and the mine area is the quietest it has been in years.
“It’s hard to leave knowing those rocks are pressing down on my children,” Mucheni, a farmer, told Al Jazeera. “We have tried everything, every morning we have prayed [to God] and last week we even had a traditional ceremony to call on our ancestors to help us. Those who have been here with their big cars parked haven’t done anything, doesn’t anyone care?”
A dozen artisanal miners went down the 250-metre pit daily, armed with rudimentary picks and shovels to dig through the rubble in search of their colleagues trapped underground. Despite the intense heat and the suffocating smell of human remains, they pressed on until the government called off the rescue mission.
A risky search for fortune
Mine accidents are not uncommon in Zimbabwe.
For years, many unemployed young men in Zimbabwe’s gold-rich areas have earned a living by working in unregulated mines with little to no safety procedures. Bay Horse was a disused mine that collapsed because the safety pillars had been dug out by artisanal miners hoping to strike a band of gold ore there, other miners said.
The accident, declared a national disaster by the government, has raised strong concerns over the safety of mining and the efficacy of rescue missions in Zimbabwe’s extractive sector.
Farai Maguwu, director of the Harare-based Centre for Natural Resource Governance (CNRG) calls the gold industry “a crime scene” saying it is riddled with corruption and artisanal miners, locally called makorokoza, often operate in unsafe conditions.
In the first quarter of 2023, Zimbabwe recorded $376.73m in export earnings, according to Fidelity Gold Refinery (FGR), a state agency that is the sole authorised buyer. Although more than half of those earnings are attributed to small-scale miners, the FGR notes that while 6.19 tonnes in gold deliveries is significant, there has been a 19 percent drop in deliveries compared with the same period in 2022 due to heavy rains.
But Maguwu feels this still is not a true picture of Zimbabwe’s true potential, due to illegal exports more than three times that amount and smuggling involving high-ranking state officials, as exposed by Gold Mafia, a four-part series by Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit, earlier this year.
Maguwu told Al Jazeera that CNRG had sent several petitions to parliament recommending regular mine inspections to be carried out by the Ministry of Mines and the Environment Management Agency. He said the CNRG also tried to lobby for reforms to improve safety and reduce illicit financial flows in the mining sector. All they got in response, Maguwu, said, was a letter in 2021 from parliament saying it would consider the recommendations. Nothing came of it.
“When a disaster such as this occurs, it’s the small-scale miners who take the risk to go down, they don’t have the right rescue equipment and they just burrow in the ground while the politicians don’t seem interested because these are the lives of poor miners, politicians seem to only worry about the gold,” he told Al Jazeera.
A trail of tears
The search team also retrieved six corpses and several decomposing body parts of people yet to be identified. Trymore Gavaza, 39, one of the rescuers, helped recover the body of his brother, 28-year-old Tawanda, who was trapped amid big stones.
That has given Gavaza a bit of solace but he is doubtful that the rescue mission will continue, given what he says is a lack of support from the government.
“The politicians came here and made a lot of promises, but no real equipment was given to help and if the rainy season starts soon nobody will go down,” he explained.
He recalls going down the 250-metre hole and walking more than a kilometre through an underground shaft. It was a nearly two-hour trek, squeezing through crevices of fallen rock just to get to the point where several bodies lay. Five days later they found the body of a man they think is Thomas Pasi, Gavaza’s cousin.
“I’m thankful the other guys found Thomas. Even though the body isn’t the person we knew, the teeth and the hair told me it’s him, I know it’s him,” he said. “We tried to remove other miners, but the dead were trapped just staring at us with their eyes open.”
Gavaza had left life as a chikorokoza to start his own grocery shop in the village with his brother, he said. Tawanda had built a shop with the help of their uncle, close to roof level. But to make some quick cash to finance the final building stage of his shop, Tawanda took one last trip to Bay Horse Mine. It was his final journey.
At the mine gates, Mucheni is milling around, uncertain of whether to stay there or head home with the grim acceptance that she may never see her sons or their bodies, dead or alive.
“If God could just take me, [if] I could die like my sons then it would be better,” she told Al Jazeera. “I have already lost so much, my husband died a long time ago and now I have lost both my children, I can’t go on,” she cries.
Source: Al Jazeera