A narrow path heads up the steep slope. The ground is a greyish black and scuffed smooth. Tattered plastic bags lie about. “I just put the coal in a plastic tub and let it slide down the slope,” says Mihai Stoica, a man in his mid-thirties.

He climbs on up the slope. As the hill is so steep, he clings to branches and shrubs. Halfway up, a mighty beech lies toppled. Just beneath the exposed roots is a depression in the earth. “A collapsed tunnel,” Stoica remarks laconically and keeps climbing. Soon he's at his “own” tunnel.

It's quiet in the forest at this season, and from the distance comes the murmur of a creek. Some coal seams in the valley almost reach the surface, and Stoica has found one. His tunnel is well hidden. If something were to happen to Stoica and he were on his own, no one would find him.

Cautiously Stoica enters the low tunnel. Eight metres long, it has no pit propping whatsoever. As he chips coal off the wall and into a plastic bag, every now and then he stops to listen to the soft creaks and groans from the tunnel walls. “The mountain is unpredictable,” he says. Now that it's getting cold, he's coming here more often.

Stoica is not his real name. He is afraid to reveal his real name, because what he's doing here is not only dangerous, but strictly prohibited. Illegal mining. But Stoica is taking the risk, to keep himself and his family from freezing in winter.

Stoica was a miner. He has been unemployed for a long time, and at home he has a wife and three children: five people who have to live on the equivalent of €50 in social assistance and child benefits each month. “Wood is very expensive. We haven't the money for it,” Stoica says. “So I'll chip coal out of here. Otherwise we wouldn't have any heat. Yes, it's against the law, but I do it because I have to.”

“They promised that they would create jobs"

In the Ceausescu era, 50,000 miners worked the coal pits of the Jiu Valley. Lured by high wages, the largely unskilled labourers came from all across Romania to dig out the huge amounts of coal Ceausescu needed to feed the country's enormous metal production factories and power plants.

After the fall of the dictator, the miners remained a pampered clientele of the communist rulers who stayed on in power after 1989. In 1997, though, the first coal mines began to be shut down. Two years later, a miner's revolt brought Romania to the brink of martial law. As thousands of desperate miners marched towards Bucharest to overthrow the government, the rulers rolled out the tanks. Romania narrowly escaped bloody clashes, as once again the miners got a reprieve. But then the colliery closures continued.

Today the Jiu Valley is Romania's most worrisome social flashpoint. Some 6,000 miners are still at work in the seven remaining coal mines. By 2018, the government wants to close those too. There are no long-term social programmes. The laid-off miners and their families, though, no longer rise up in rebellion. They waste away in their decaying ghettos, and almost none have found new work in the area.

A tragic yet absurd situation, given the chances that Romania has had to fight poverty. Many billions of euros in funding from EU coffers are available to the country, in particular for regional and economic development. But Romania has hardly touched the money. Of all the EU states in eastern Europe, it has submitted the lowest number of project-funding applications that comply with the EU rules. After 2015, the funding that is not used will no longer be available.

Stoica comes originally from a village in southern Romania. His parents were poor farmers and had nine children. In 1992, when he was just eighteen, he came to the town of Uricani in the Jiu Valley and started working at the local mine. In 1997 he barely survived carbon-monoxide poisoning in a mining accident. His wife urged him to quit. The government had just begun to close mines in the Jiu Valley and was giving out relatively generous redundancy payments. Stoica gave notice. “They promised that they would create jobs in furniture factories and in tourism,” he recalls. “Everything was going to be a lot better.”

"We can't pick and choose where we live"

The Stoicas used the severance money to pay off their electrical bills and bought a new refrigerator. Unable to find a steady job, Stoica supported his family with odd jobs. He was a salesman and street cleaner, a labourer on farms and construction sites, and gathered mushrooms and forest fruits – like many of the people of Uricani. Today 830 people still work in the town's mine. Unemployment is at 70 percent. “I believed all the promises back then,” Stoica says. “Now I regret quitting.”

The Stoicas live in one of the many dilapidated 1950s housing blocks in Uricani. The facades are crumbling and rain comes in through the ceilings. Moulds and fungi grow up the walls. The Stoicas' flat looks as though the family is only living in it temporarily. There is a bed, a couple of chairs, a table, and a television. The walls have no pictures. The five-year-old son sleeps with his parents in their bed, while the 12-year-old daughter and her eight-year-old brother fold out the couch in the living room every night.

Stoica's wife Ioana stands by the stove frying potato wedges, today's lunch. Smiling, with a proud indifference, she talks about her life. “Many call the Jiu Valley the Valley of Tears,” she says. “But we can't pick and choose where we live. We want to offer our children a good education, but we can't think beyond today.”

It has begun to rain, and the flat cools. Mihai Stoica goes down to the cellar, where the coal he has brought down from the mountain is stored behind a screen of boards, and scoops some up into a bucket along with some wood splinters. A coal fire is soon glowing in the stove. Sometimes, when the Stoicas have no money to refill their propane bottle, they cook in the stove's oven.

Mihai Stoica stares into the fire. He will try to go to Spain to find work in agriculture, but he does not know how he is going to scrape together the money to get there. “These are difficult times,” he says. “The social security of Romania's people no longer counts for anything. So much has been promised, and nothing has been done. We feel cheated.”