For more than a year, photographers Axel Ruhomaully, Franck Depaifve, and Roméo Balancourt got to witness the children of Cheratte acquiring a new perception of their origins, with a touching pride. They now see their grandparents as, heroes who stayed anonymous for too long. These pictures by the famous portraitist Roméo Balancourt unveil a pride that was hidden under the wrinkles for too long.

Awareness among the new generations
Brigitte, a teacher at Cheratte-Bas communal school, and Luciana, her friend and supervisor at the school, wish to “raise awareness” among the kids of Turkish, Spanish, Italian, and Polish origins about the reasons why their village is such a blend of cultures, and answer questions that they wouldn’t think of asking at home. Brigitte and Luciana encouraged the children to interview their grandparents, most of whom had worked at the Hasard coalmine in Cheratte. We arrived at the school at that significant moment when the children began taking a real interest in their grandparents.

ROGER

The day the mine shut down, nobody was laughing any more. For once, we had a drink out of sadness, and not joy. It was kind of like our home was closing…

Roger, serial number 413,
Electrician at Cheratte from 156 to 1977

The miners are solidary
“Even though we weren’t close friends with everyone, solidarity was vital, and we never forgot that we always depended on someone, especially when a lamp went out at the bottom of the mine…”

PEPPONE

I arrived in August ’59, just before the great strike. I wanted to work at the Fabrique Nationale, but I needed a work permit. The only solution was to work in a coal mine… I started out pushing; trolleys; sometimes we simply had to wait for the guys to unload the equipment. At times, I even had to wait more than an hour, with nothing to do!

Giuseppe, serial number, Miner in Cheratte from 1961 to 1964

Avelino, serial number 283/44/5
Went from “galibot” to foreman at Cheratte, from 1951 to 1977

JOHAN

You can’t imagine what it’s like to come back after forty years. So many memories, good and bad, but it is as if it were only yesterday… And it’s important for the kids to know what it was like.

Johan, AKA Johnny, serial number 693, mechanic at Cheratte from 1963 to 1977.

Johan was one of the first to grant us his trust. He passed away after showing the mine to the children one last time.

Lakdar, serial number unknown
Miner in Cheratte from 1962 to 1977

The miners are men
<i>“When I was a kid, in my village, they told me that to be a man, you had to smell like tobacco and alcohol. I started working at seven years old, I drank and smoked much later, but I had to wait a long time to become a man…”</i>

ISMET

We had been taking exams for 4 days in Micheroux, we were getting bored and went for a walk. As we crossed the Wandre bridge, we didn’t dare to go any further, since we didn’t know the area. Then a bus of tourists stopped and, after learning where we came from, clapped and shouted “turcos, turcos!”.

Ismet, serial number 229
Miner in Cheratte from 1963 to 1967

CEMAL

I left Turkey to get rich, convinced that I would come back soon, bearing gifts. It took me 11 years to understand that I would never come back, until my wife joined me with the kids. My sons Remzi and Mustafa were the only two Turks at school who didn’t speak a word of French.

Cemal, serial number 670.
Miner in Cheratte from 1964 to 1975.

Nusret, serial number 848, miner in Cheratte from 1964 to 1977.

The Karabayir family,
Two generations of miners, four generations of Cherattois.

Lakdar and his granddaughter Yousra
Miner in Cheratte from 1962 to 1977

THOMAS

My nonno (grandfather) was very much into craftsmanship and fixing things up, a skill he got at the mine and that he never stopped using during his life! As a project manager at the SPI, I am currently working to complete an ambitious project for the village, while respecting the places and the men who worked there.

Thomas, grandson of Pasquale, serial number 681.
Project manager at the SPI, an agency of economic development for the province of Liège.

The miners are humble
“A Belgian passport? Do you really think they will take me seriously with my accent? No, my French isn’t good enough… but that hasn’t stopped me from eating French fries for over 50 years!”

ARTURO

When I arrived from Spain, I quickly understood two things: first, that I had to learn Italian to fit in, and second, that the miners’ pension fund was the richest in Europe because no one lived long enough to benefit from it…

Arturo, AKA “the American”, serial number 202
Miner in Cheratte from 1962 to 1977

DENIZ

It’s like we’ve been living next to superheroes who felt like they had nothing left to say. Now we look at them differently. We know that, even though the sky is bluer in Turkey, Italy or Spain, our story was written in Cheratte, and we can be proud of that…

Deniz, great granddaughter of a miner, student at Cheratte-Bas school

The miners are grandfathers
<i>“Kids have it way too easy nowadays; if they knew what we went through, they would understand how lucky they are. They can’t imagine what it’s like to go down the coal mine, curled up in the lift.”</i>

M Yagmur, serial number 649, and his grandson Ekin.
Miner in Cheratte from 1965 to 1977

LUCIANA

When I was a child, I was “every mother’s daughter”. There was no racism in the cité, and my Italian mother took care of all the neighbourhood kids. On the day of her funeral, all her Muslim friends came to the church…

Luciana, daughter of a miner, supervisor at Cheratte-Bas school.

Marie-José, administrative employee in Cheratte.

MARIO

I came to Liège from Italy on 17 September 1951. I am 88 years old, and I remember that day like it was yesterday! They conveyed us to the barracks, where we got settled, and the next morning, we were already at the bottom of the mine.

Mario, serial number. 775
Miner in Cheratte from 1956 to 1977.

Brigitte, teacher at Cheratte-Bas school.

The miners are tender
“Ghislaine was 15 years old, and I was 20. We were so shy that one of her friends had to push her towards me at the village ball! I was 20 years old, we got married 5 years later, and we have been together ever since…”
Credits: Story

Photos portraits: Roméo Balancourt
Cartoon: Meï
Street Art: Monk

With the support of Wallonie

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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