THE HUNTER BECOMES THE HUNTED: The Ukraine's illegal mining industry is a closely guarded secret (this page). Everyone seems to know it happens, but almost no one knows exactly where or who does it or how it works.
Undeterred, reporter Arie Farnam spent two weeks working her way across the Ukraine, asking questions. She ended up in the town of Snezhnoye in the apartment of a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend: a single mother who worked for the city bureaucracy. The woman admitted that there are illegal mines in Snezhnoye, but she said she didn't know where to find them.
"My traveling companion, photographer Kurt Vinion, and I decided to take our host and her small son out to dinner at the town's only surviving fancy restaurant, not realizing it was the local mafia hang-out. The men in black leather jackets at the other tables eyed our wholesome family gathering with suspicion, and when we got up to leave, one of them cornered our friend and demanded, 'Which of those two foreigners can I kill?'
"Unruffled, our host invoked the protection of her own family's mafia connections. We left, trembling at the knees."
After that, everyone in Snezhnoye seemed to know about the visiting journalists. The mayor wanted to meet them, and then didn't show up for his own appointment. "Then, he sent his guards to follow us around town. A local journalist tipped us off, and we fled into the forest outside town, where we finally met the illegal miners."
Valentin, the father of the boss of one of the mining crews, volunteered to be their guide. The miners, although under the control of organized crime, were eager to tell their stories. But they were also afraid. Miners had been fined, had been imprisoned, and had disappeared after talking to local journalists. Arie swore to protect their identities.
"But within two days, rumors were flying that the Federal Security Agency, the modern equivalent of the KGB, had discovered our whereabouts and would punish anyone who spoke to us. We could hardly believe we had actually attracted that much attention, but the villagers and miners suddenly fell silent around us. Only Valentin laughed it off, saying it was just a rumor.
"But then he woke us on the third morning, shaking with fear. 'You have to get out of here!' he said. 'I can't explain. Just come quickly.' He led us back into the forest by a hidden route to a main road. We flagged down a bus heading west and never looked back."
David Clark Scott