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Photo Essay: Bosnia's women miners still love life in the pits as they near retirement

  • Woemn coal miners Sakiba Colic, left, and Semsa Hadzo, right, Bosnian coal technologists, are checking air flow and temperature at 450 meters underground in the shaft of the coal mine in Breza, 20 kms north of Sarajevo, Bosnia, on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013. The mine in Breza is the only one in Bosnia where a group of women work deep underground in the coal mines alongside their male colleagues, a legacy of communism, but they're set to retire in three years, marking the end of an era for this community where almost everybody is connected to the coal mine. The shafts and elevators echo with laughter and tales of their grandchildren as women miners work alongside their male counterparts.(AP Photo/Amel Emric)The Associated Press

  • Sakiba Colic, left, and Semsa Hadzo, right, exchange jokes and laugh outside the shaft of the coal mine in Breza, 20 kms north of Sarajevo, Bosnia, after completing their 8-hour shift at 450 meters under ground on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013. The mine in Breza is the only one in Bosnia where a group of women work deep underground in the coal mines alongside their male colleagues, a legacy of communism, but they're set to retire in three years, marking the end of an era for this community where almost everybody is connected to the coal mine. The shafts and elevators echo with laughter and tales of their grandchildren as women miners work alongside their male counterparts.(AP Photo/Amel Emric)The Associated Press

  • Woman coal miner Sakiba Colic, right, a Bosnian coal technologist, and one of her colleagues are seen through a smeared window outside the shaft of the coal mine in Breza, 20 kms north of Sarajevo, Bosnia on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013. The mine in Breza is the only one in Bosnia where a group of women work deep underground in the coal mines alongside their male colleagues, a legacy of communism, but they're set to retire in three years, marking the end of an era for this community where almost everybody is connected to the coal mine. The shafts and elevators echo with laughter and tales of their grandchildren as women miners work alongside their male counterparts.(AP Photo/Amel Emric)The Associated Press

  • Women miners Sakiba Colic, right, and Semsa Hadzo, left, Bosnian coal technologists, ride a coal mine train on the way out of the shaft at the end of their 8-hour shift at 450 meters underground in Breza, 20 kms north of Sarajevo, Bosnia, on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013. The mine in Breza is the only one in Bosnia where a group of women work deep underground in the coal mines alongside their male colleagues, a legacy of communism, but they're set to retire in three years, marking the end of an era for this community where almost everybody is connected to the coal mine. The shafts and elevators echo with laughter and tales of their grandchildren as women miners work alongside their male counterparts.(AP Photo/Amel Emric)The Associated Press

  • Women coal miner Sakiba Colic, a Bosnian coal technologists, measures air temperature at 450 meters underground in the coal mine in Breza, 20 kms north of Sarajevo, Bosnia, on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013. The mine in Breza is the only one in Bosnia where a group of women work deep underground in the coal mines alongside their male colleagues, a legacy of communism, but they're set to retire in three years, marking the end of an era for this community where almost everybody is connected to the coal mine. The shafts and elevators echo with laughter and tales of their grandchildren as women miners work alongside their male counterparts.(AP Photo/Amel Emric)The Associated Press

They're a legacy of communism — a group of hardy women working deep underground in Bosnia's aging coal mines. They're set to retire in three years, marking the end of an era.

In communist Yugoslavia, authorities wanted to promote gender equality and encouraged women to attend schools and get jobs instead of staying home and raising kids. Factories filled with a new work force, and it was not uncommon to see women working as coal miners.

Despite technology dating back to 1986 and the risk of accidents — more than 70 people died in the 1970s in two separate incidents — the 10 women in Breza, northwest of Sarajevo, seem to love their jobs. They enjoy the banter with the 500a or so men. The shafts and elevators echo with laughter and tales of grandchildren.

Paying around 500 euros ($675) a month, mining offers a stable income in a country with almost 30 percent unemployment.

Many younger, female colleagues work in the administrative office above ground — but Sakiba Colic and Semsa Hadzo prefer the pit.

"We are always in a good mood down there," says Colic. "We get along great with our comrades and we love the jokes that are thrown around."

For decades she tours the pits and checks the airflow, the amount of methane in the air and the temperature. But in 2016, when mandatory retirement kicks in, they will be the last of their kind.

"They are very responsible and precise," said pit supervisor Alija Salkic. "But I still think this is not a job for a woman. It's hard and some are already grandmothers. Somehow, that's a bit too much."

In Breza, almost everybody is connected to the coal mine. People for the most part have gotten used to the sight of the women miners. But once, Colic recalled, "an old lady had to touch me to see if I was real."

Hadzo says none of her four sisters "would ever dare to go down" but insists she has no regrets.

Putting on lipstick and drying her hair after a shower at the mine, she ponders for a second what she'd do if she had her time all over again.

And there's no doubt in her mind: "I would be in the mine."

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Aida Cerkez contributed.