Across Turkey, the grief sparked by the recent mining disaster in Soma is spiralling into anti-government outrage. Prime Minister Erdogan could end up paying for his insensitive response to the tragedy if he decides to run for president in August.
The belongings of Asli Yildirim’s husband were returned to her in a blue garbage bag lying on the ground in front of her. She pulls his clothes from its cold plastic folds and presses them to her face.
“Let me smell him one last time,” she cries over and over again, pushing away her father, then her mother, and hugging the garments, blackened by smoke, to her chest. Her husband’s yellow rubber boots lie at her feet.
Then she passes out.
Asli Yildirim’s sisters and cousins bend over her, splashing her face with water from a garden hose. Don’t lose your mind, Asli, they tell her, or they’ll take away your children. The state will help you, they’ll give you money. You’re not alone, just because you’ve lost your husband, they say.
He’s one of Elmadere’s many fallen men. The women who lost their husbands in the Soma mine disaster last week have also lost their providers and their social status in the village. From now on, their children will be called orphans. The women will have no choice but to work in the fields as day laborers.
Elmadere is a remote village situated in the mountainous Soma district, at the end of a sandy street. It consists of just 120 houses, surrounded by tall fir trees. At least one male member of every local family works in the mines, if not all of them. Asli Yildirim’s husband, brother, brother-in-law, cousin and nephew all went to work in the mine when they turned 18.
‘We Won’t Remain Silent’
The villagers help her back on her feet, only for her to sink down on to the steps in front of her house. The front is unplastered red-brick, and one of the rooms is still under construction. The windows haven’t been fitted and there’s a pile of cement in the corner of the room. For the last nine years, Ilkay Yildirim, Asli’s husband, saved his wages so he could build this house.
The house of her in-laws is at the bottom of the garden. The governor of the neighboring province of Izmir is seated outside on a plastic chair. He’s here to offer the Yildirims his condolences, he explains. What happened was an “accident” that could just as well have occurred anywhere, he says.
His spokesman is quick to mention that the governor is available for interviews, and they’re accompanied by a trigger-happy photographer taking pictures of the politician’s every gesture. Policemen are standing guard outside the house to protect him from wrathful locals. The men of Elmadere are angry.
“We won’t remain silent any longer,” says one of them. “You can only get away with this because we never say anything. Because we’re poor and weak. But Erdogan will pay for this.”
“It was an accident,” says the governor.
Rumors and Accusations
It began early last week. On Tuesday afternoon, an explosion in the Soma mine in western Turkey is believed to have caused an underground fire. It was the worst mine disaster in Turkish history, leaving 301 men dead, according to the latest reports.
When the incident occurred, 400 meters underground (1,312 feet), almost 800 miners were thought to be in the pit. Around 450 were rescued. The mine’s tunnels were reportedly full of such thick smoke that there was a complete power failure. Rescue workers have been recovering bodies ever since. Ilkay Yildirim, Asli Yildirim’s husband, was among the casualties.
He had finally finished building a house for his family last summer. The living room had been painted and plastic sheeting laid on the floor. A wood-burning stove stood in the corner and the couple had hung their gold-framed wedding photos on the wall. They bought a television and a washing machine. Ilkay knew he would have to keep working for many years to come to pay everything off. But at least there was work to be had.
The Soma basin is the second largest lignite area in Turkey. Because of its low energy density, lignite is considered the lowest rank of coal. About 90 percent of lignite production comes from surface mines. Underground mining is only viable if costs are kept to a minimum — with low wages and low safety standards.
It appears that the blast occurred when a transformer blew up. Such an accident would either cause a smoldering fire that would consume all the oxygen in the mine, or the concentration of methane, carbon monoxide and coal dust in the pit would result in an explosion.
According to experts, this would raise further dust and result in a further explosion, thereby creating a knock-on effect. The only way to stop it would be if there were underground water reservoirs that could flood the tunnels in the event of an explosion.
But there were no such reservoirs in the Soma mine, nor were there adequate emergency escape routes, say eyewitnesses.
Is this true? The accusations have been flying in the past week, largely ignored by the pro-government media but amid growing public anger levelled primarily at the managers of the mine, politicians and Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the center-right, neoliberal, Islamist-rooted party came to power in 2002 during one of Turkey’s most severe economic crises. At the behest of the International Monetary Fund, the party lowered social welfare support levels, deregulated, reduced the power of the trade unions and introduced sweeping privatization — with initial success. It managed to jumpstart the economy and create jobs.
Prior to 2005, the Soma mine was state-owned. In 2007 it was taken over by the private company Soma Holding. In a 2012 interview, CEO Alp Gürkan boasted that he had reduced the production costs of a ton of coal from $140 to $23.80, while more than doubling turnover.
The average monthly wage for a mine worker in Soma is just 1,200 Turkish Lira (€420), despite the fact the job is both dangerous and extremely tough. The men who died cost their employers very little, but themselves paid the ultimate price.
“The mine operators cut costs by saving on safety,” says Özgür Özel matter-of-factly. But his bitterness is unmistakable.
Özel is a diffident man in a crumpled blue shirt, covered from head to toe in a film of yellow dust. He has spent the last few hours at the coal mine, talking to the families of the dead and comforting them, without showing any of his own despair. Özel is a local. He grew up here, and began climbing the union ladder in Soma. The disaster marks what will most likely be the most devastating defeat of his political career. He feels responsible for failing to save the miners.
But at least he tried.
Özel, who has been a member of parliament for the Republican People’s Party since 2011, submitted a motion in October 2013 calling for an independent commission to investigate a series of accidents in the Soma mine. “The government does not care about the lives of workers!” he told the assembly.
Three weeks ago, the AKP voted against the commission, with Erdogan declaring disparagingly that the opposition should not be hampering the political system with such trivialities.
“The government ignored our warnings!” says Özel.
Similarly, the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects maintains that the mining industry has been handed over to “incompetent, ill-equipped and inexperienced” individuals and companies, with production pushed to its limits in order to boost profits in as short a time as possible.
Meanwhile, an International Labor Organization (ILO) report reveals that in 2012, the most workplace accidents in Europe occurred in Turkey — between two and four deaths every day — and alludes to politically motivated promotions of incompetent people to key positions and a relaxation of state controls. Factors that make accidents inevitable.
Recently widowed Asli Yildirim and her father-in-law were unaware of the ILO report and its statistics on workplace fatalities. All they know is that a husband and a son is now dead, lying before them in a white shroud.
Ilkay’s father Yildirim has now lost both his sons. Seated on a plastic chair next to the governor outside his home in Elmadere, the elderly man’s hands are shaking. “My first son was born in 1981, the second in 1989,” he says. He keeps repeating the sentence, as if hoping it might bring them back.
Ilkay Yildirim was the oldest. His younger brother Salih won’t even get a proper burial — his body was mistakenly claimed by a stranger. Salih’s face had been so disfigured by the fire that he was wrongly identified. Now, Salih Yildirim lies buried 200 kilometers (124 miles) away in a village he never visited in his life, his grave marked with a name not his own.
The Question of Responsibility
His is just one of many tragic stories in Soma these days. But his fate raises the question of responsibility. The AKP has always purported to be the party of the common man. Is it actually the party of money and corruption? Soma is situated in the province of Manisa, home to the AKP’s biggest support base.
Doubts about the party are now spreading. Especially about the way Erdogan and his supporters have dealt with the tragedy, denying they had anything to do with it in a way that has been seen as hostile and cynical.
Mining accidents tend to seem especially horrific. Images of men trapped underground in complete darkness are always haunting and have frequently captured the public imagination. Germany has its “Miracle of Lengede,” a 1963 disaster that claimed 29 lives although 11 were saved, while in Chile in 2010, the whole world watched with bated breath as efforts were made to save the lives of miners buried by a cave-in at the San José copper-gold mine in Copiapó, heaving a collective sigh of relief when all 33 of them were freed.
In contrast, the Turkish government opted to treat the Soma mine disaster like a blow of fate best accepted. “If you go out to sea, you might get caught in a storm,” said AKP spokesman Hüseyin Çelik.
It was one of the milder remarks issued from the ranks of Erdogan’s AKP. On the whole, the party’s behavior in the past week has amounted to a catalogue of gaffes and insults.
During his visit to Soma, Erdogan found himself booed by an angry crowd gathered in front of an HSBC bank building and fled with his entourage to a nearby supermarket. The prime minister allegedly called one of the protesters an “Israeli spawn.” His handlers were caught on video in clashes with demonstrators and the images also indicate Erdogan was involved.
The next faux pas came at a press conference in Soma shortly afterwards. Erdogan compared the disaster to mining accidents in 19th century Britain, nonchalantly observing that accidents are “what happens in coal mining.”
“Let me go back to the past in England,” he said. “In a slide in 1862, 204 people died, in 1866, 361 people died, and in an explosion in England in 1894, 290 died.”
He failed to utter a single word of regret over the deaths of miners such as Ilkay Yildirim, widows such as Asli Yildirim and the many children left fatherless, as well as entire communities now dealing with mass bereavement, such as Elmadere.
Adding insult to injury, a photograph of an Erdogan aide kicking a protester then went around the world, becoming symbolic of the arrogance of his regime.
Protests gathered momentum in Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir, where 20,000 people took to the streets. In Istanbul, crowds erected barricades, smeared their faces black and marched through the city in miner’s helmets to demonstrate their solidarity.
But their message fell on deaf ears.
Last Friday, Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz took stock of the situation in Soma, announcing that 18 men were still trapped inside the mine. It sounded like he was saying “only” 18.
In an office close to Istanbul’s Bilgi University, activist Ahmet Sik, one of the leaders of the Gezi Park protests that gripped Turkey last year, is mulling the scope of damage to the government’s reputation.
An investigative journalist and writer, Sik, isn’t afraid to ask uncomfortable questions. He has been arrested several times and numerous efforts have been made to ban his books. Last summer, a photograph of him with blood pouring down his face after getting injured covering the protests made the front pages of the international press.
He feels the current public outrage could topple Erdogan if it spreads — but he doubts it will.
“Erdogan spoke of ‘fate’ in response to Soma,” he points out. “The relatives of the dead seek comfort in the same idea. The state is resorting to this sort of rhetoric to appeal to the victims’ religious feelings and to appease them, and it’s a strategy that works.”
Sik predicts that the presidential elections in August, in which Erdogan is considering running, will show whether the general public is ready to vote him out of office or whether he is now perceived as Turkey’s “destiny.”
The third alternative is of course that he wins the election, with half the population voting for him for lack of alternatives and the other half detesting him with a vengeance.
This polarization on Turkish society is also reflected in Germany, Erdogan’s fourth-largest constituency. The Turkish leader is slated to appear at a rally in Cologne this weekend and tens of thousands are expected to take to to the streets in protest. The same number is set to show up to support him.
What is clear is that Erdogan can no longer rely on any support back in Elmadere, the village at the end of a sandy dirt road that winds through the mountains in Soma, western Turkey. Too many men have died. Including Ilkay Yildirim and his brother Salih, who now lies buried in a distant village.
Ilkay had been planning to take the day off when he died, says Asli. His plan had been to go and buy his son a tricycle.