Valery Melnikov (Russia)

Mali. The golden sand of life and death 

A few years ago the African state of Mali was covered by a real gold rush. The most part of the gold diggers came from the poorest corners of Mali, as well as from the northern regions of the country affected by the political and military crisis. Lack of work, rampant poverty and incredible stories of the lucky ones who have found large gold nuggets are pushing thousands of people into the search of gold and a better life. Today even those who a couple years ago stated that they never would go to the south and never go down into the mines ...  go to the southern region Kenieba, where rich deposits of gold are located. 

Kenieba region is located about 400 km from the capital Bamako, this is one of the three gold-rich regions of Mali. The government allows everyone to produce the golden sand free by hand and sell it to local traders - the cost of one gram of gold hovers around $50.

Gold miners start their work early in the morning, at dawn, while the air has still not reached a very high temperature. The working day lasts for 10-12 hours. Huge numbers of women and children work in the mines. About 20,000 children are employed looking for gold in Mali according to Human Rights Watch. Women wash the golden sand in the river water.

The most difficult and dangerous work in the mines is at a depth of 10 to 20 meters. The miners fill bags with gold ore and transfer them to the surface. Sometimes the roof collapses in the mines, so the poor people find themselves under rubble. After washing the ore and smelting of gold dust, gold bullion is transferred through dealers to the capital of Bamako.

In the miners' words, working in the mine is like going to war. “You can go home only if you win, if you lose no one is waiting for you”. Every day spent in the mine is a test of their own luck. Every day brings another chance, an opportunity to get rich or stay here forever. 

Valery Melnikov was born on Feb. 21, 1973 in Nevinnomyssk in the Stavropol Territory, Russia Federation.  I have been a RIA Novosti photographer since November 2009.  I began studying journalism at Stavropol State University in 1994, as a photojournalist documenting the changes taking place in the North and South Caucasus. From my first year at university, I worked as a reporter on the Severny Kavkaz newspaper, covering the Stavropol Territory. In December 1999, I made a photo report about the Argun special operation. During the operation, Russian border guard troops were swiftly relocated to the Argun River valley in Chechnya to secure this section of the border with Georgia. Afterwards, I was invited to work as staff photo correspondent at the Kommersant publishing house. I often worked for Kommersant, reporting on events in the North and South Caucasus. I prepared special reports on hostage crises in the Stavropol Territory in 2001 and in Beslan in 2004, as well as on the armed conflict between Georgia and South Ossetia. I also reported on the 2006 Lebanon War. In 2010, while working for RIA Novosti, I reported on the consequences of the 2010 Chile earthquake. Alongside my professional activity, I take part in professional exhibitions and contests, and have won numerous photo contests in the Stavropol Territory. I have showcased my work in various exhibitions in Moscow. I won second place in the Sports Russia national photo contest and the Fotofestival Knokke-Heist 2011, an international professional photo contest in Belgium. I was a finalist in the photographers’ festival Vilnius Photo Circle in 2012 (Vilnius, Lithuania).  I won the bronze award in the category of War & Disaster News Stories in the CHIPP (China International Press Photo) 2012 contest.