World Agenda

Last updated: 23 december, 2010 - 13:09 GMT

Chilean miners - The price of freedom

BBC's Piers Scholfield at Camp Hope in Copiapo, Chile

BBC's Piers Scholfield at Camp Hope in Copiapo, Chile

BBC’s Piers Scholfield, who spent weeks camping with families of the trapped men before their miraculous rescue, returns to Copiapo to discover all is not well in the community.

“Yes, they would love you to be there. But it’ll cost you $400.”

It was a strange kind of wedding invitation.

I had noticed that my return to Copiapo in Chile would coincide with the wedding of one of the 33 miners who became trapped in the San Jose mine in August.

The engagement had made headlines when Cristina Nunez proposed to her boyfriend Claudio Yanez while he was trapped some 700 metres underneath the Atacama Desert.

I hadn’t expected such a response to my query about attending the service.

Difficult to adjust

Copiapo – a rapidly growing copper mining town – is rife with gossip about the miners. Whether it’s stories of their excessive drinking and womanising or tales of fights between the men over money

BBC’s Piers Scholfield

In the weeks before the dramatic rescue at the mine, I spent most of my time at Camp Hope, the impromptu tented village set up by relatives of the men stuck below ground.

Despite some wariness towards the media, most of the families were friendly and I got to know some of them extremely well.

Returning to the town closest to the mine, two months after the rescue, I was a little surprised.

Various interview requests were met with demands for money. Though in many cases I detected the miners themselves would be only too happy to talk if it weren’t for pressure from their wives or girlfriends.

At the time, many had predicted an approaching problem - that miners not used to the spotlight would find it difficult to adjust to a more public profile.

Quiet dignity

Rescued miner Omar Reygadas (centre) with his family

Rescued miner Omar Reygadas (centre) with his family

But there have been success stories.

Since the rescue, Edison Pena – the avid Elvis Presley fan who ran several kilometres underground every day – has run the New York marathon, appeared on David Letterman’s chat show in the US and was recently in Italy, where he was due to sing a duet with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on primetime television.

There are others going about earning their keep in a less high-profile way.

Omar Reygadas was one of the older miners underground and I became close friends with his family while putting together a radio documentary about the long wait they endured.

When I met Omar after the rescue, his quiet dignity and pride at how his family had held a vigil for him was striking.

Since then, he’s gone on tour, giving motivational talks to students – and is much in demand.

When I went back to his house he was as friendly and open as before.

Psychological problems

Omar Reygadas with the mayor of Copiapo, Maglio Cicardini

Omar Reygadas with the mayor of Copiapo, Maglio Cicardini

Copiapo – a rapidly growing copper mining town – is rife with gossip about the miners.

Whether it’s stories of their excessive drinking and womanising or tales of fights between the men over money.

“Welcome to Copia-Hollywood,” one friend said to me after I arrived.

But Omar told me honestly that some were doing better than others.

Many have deep psychological problems stemming from their time underground.

A lot of them – especially the younger ones – had found the media attention very difficult to deal with.

“They think they can charge for a five-minute chat on the phone,” he told me.

Enduring problems

Rescued Chilean miners attend an honorary parade for Copiapo's anniversary

Rescued Chilean miners attend an honorary parade for Copiapo's anniversary

I talked to some of the 33 at a parade thrown in honour of Copiapo’s anniversary.

They were presented with the latest in a long line of awards for their stoicism and feat of endurance in the mine.

Some seemed weary, while others didn’t accept the invitation. It became increasingly apparent to me, after returning to the town, that the men’s ordeal is far from over.

click Click here for Piers Scholfield's report for BBC Mundo on revisiting Copiapo and click here for his report on BBC News

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