On dangerous ground
Three months after a deadly explosion in a mine in Soma, western Turkey, Constanze Letsch returned to the town to see how it was dealing with the fallout. She found a place divided by fear, politics and money
13th May 2014 (Taken from: #15)
Soma has grown quiet. Three months after 301 miners were killed in Turkey’s worst ever industrial incident, there are few visible signs of the disaster. Only a few shops still display messages of condolence to passers-by and the black ribbons have been removed from public buses. The reporters who arrived en masse in the hours after the incident have all moved on. But this does not mean that life has returned to normal.
“The town is paralysed,” says Gülay Yildiz, who works in the Soma Café, a small teashop across the street from a statue of two miners, a tribute to the industry’s history in the area. The 6,000 people employed by Soma Kömür, the operator that runs three of the five deep pit coal mines in Soma, do not have an official date for their return to work. Meanwhile, prosecutors have launched a court case against Soma Kömür for the incident at its mine, and eight company officials are still under arrest, charged with “causing negligent deaths”. The first hearing will not take place until at least November.
“Every time we hear the sirens of an ambulance we fear that something else has happened,” continues Yildiz. “Sometimes I feel like our whole town needs therapy.”
“It is fate”
It was on the afternoon of Tuesday 13th May 2014 that the explosion tore through the shaft of a Soma coal mine.
The incident occurred during a shift change, meaning that there were more people underground than usual – 787 in total. Hundreds were killed almost instantly and scores more were wounded and trapped underground. When the final body was pulled out four days later, the death toll stood at 301. The incident catapulted Soma into international headlines, making it synonymous with the dangers of coal mining and loosely regulated industrial growth.
First assessments blamed faulty electrical equipment for the blast, but a preliminary report prepared by a mine safety expert who accessed the shaft afterwards suggested that smouldering coal may have caused the roof of the mine to collapse. The report also said that support beams were made of wood, not metal, and that there were not enough carbon monoxide sensors.
Soma’s grief soon turned to anger. Protesters clashed with the police in and around the town and 30 people – including several lawyers who had travelled to the city to offer advice to the victims – were arrested. The rage spread: hundreds of people marched through the western city of Izmir and there were protests in Istanbul, Zonguldak and the capital, Ankara.
Soma is just the latest in a long line of mine disasters in Turkey: more than 2,500 miners have died since 1991 and some 13,000 miners suffered accidents at work in 2013″
An incident on the scale of Soma was always going to be a political issue – and this year a lot was at stake. Until 2014, the country’s presidents had been elected by members of the Turkish parliament. As of this year, though, the decision on who would be head of state was down to the public – and the public cared about what happened in Soma.
Three weeks prior to the explosion, the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) rejected opposition calls for an investigation into safety at the mine, and the labour ministry said that the mine had been checked and declared safe as late as March 2014. In the weeks since the incident, critics have claimed that crony capitalism and political corruption were contributing factors, arguing that local authorities had failed to enforce safety regulations and ensure decent working conditions.
Soma is just the latest in a long line of mine disasters in Turkey: more than 2,500 miners have died since 1991 and some 13,000 miners suffered accidents at work in 2013. But despite the promise of an inquiry into the disaster, both the government and Soma Kömür, the owner of the mine, have refused to take responsibility. When he visited the town, then prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan argued that accidents in coal mines are inevitable. “What happened, happened,” he said. “It is fate,” he continued, before pointing to similar disasters in 19th century Europe. Furious locals who protested during his visit were dispersed with plastic bullets and water cannons. Yusuf Yerkel, one of Erdogan’s aides, was filmed attacking a protesting miner by the side of the road. The image of him kicking the man went viral on social media and came to symbolise the Turkish government’s widely criticised handling of the disaster.
“There were bodies everywhere”
Musa Çakmak, 42, is the owner of the teahouse in the nearby town of Savastepe and one of the founding members of the local coal miners’ association. He worked as a miner for three years until 2003, when severe lung problems forced him to quit.
On a noticeboard behind him are pictures of the 34 miners from Savastepe who were killed in the incident. “This man had already retired,” Çakmak explains, pointing at one photograph. “He still went down there every day because he needed the money to feed his family.” His finger hovers over a picture of a young man. “He married a week before the accident. One week!” Like all of the men in the association, Çakmak knew each of the miners who died, their backgrounds and their families.
Mehmet Yilmaz, a welder of six years at the Soma mine, was in the machinery workshop above ground when the explosion tore through the shaft. “It was between two and three in the afternoon,” he recalls. “The electricity in the workshop was cut. Everyone ran to the mine to help, but they did not let anyone inside.” He takes a deep breath. “In the morning bus to work, we were 38 people. That night, 32 of us were dead.”
This shock has woken up many miners who have previously been silent about the dismal working conditions. People are less afraid to talk”
After the May incident, several miners went on the record to expose the dismal working conditions in the Soma coal pits. Their accounts belie the assertions of the firm’s owner, Alp Gürkan, who insisted his company has invested heavily in safety, telling the Turkish media that the Soma mine was a “first-class workplace”.
At the newly-founded chapter of Soma’s leftist union Dev Maden-Sen, miners discuss how to push for more work safety, transparency, and better working conditions.
Ethem Akdogan, responsible for recruiting at Dev Maden-Sen, says that the incident has changed everything. “301 people are dead. This shock has woken up many miners who have previously been silent about the dismal working conditions. People are less afraid to talk,” he says. “Without justice for the miners they will not be able to live with this trauma. Soma Kömür should lose its license, it should be punished for the murder it clearly committed.”
Ahmet Öz, a tobacco farmer who had to turn to coal mining after state subsidies dried up, says he cannot forget the scenes he encountered when he entered the mine after the incident: “There were bodies everywhere. They were piled up on the conveyor belt, on top of each other, so many of my friends.”
Like many others, he now receives psychiatric help. “I have started to yell at my wife, at my little son. I don’t know how to cope with what happened.” He goes to therapy two times a week and is on medication. But it is not only miners who are struggling.
“We have not recovered from the shock,” Gülay Yildiz tells me in the Soma Café. “We all still feel like fish out of water. During the month of Ramadan, we were fasting, we were distracted. Now we have to face our sadness again, it is very difficult.” Gülay lost her cousin and her nephew in the mine explosion. She says that she never really understood why people were angry at the government. “But I am also surprised that nobody really seems to take an interest in what is happening in Soma now. In a few more months people will not even remember what happened here.”
The concern that Soma might soon be forgotten is being voiced everywhere. In a municipal sports complex not far from the café, two civil servants oversee a range of donations made by individuals and organisations from all over the country as well as from abroad.
“All of that stuff over there comes from Germany!” one of them says, pointing at a stack of crates in one corner. “This is only the rest of what is left,” he adds, somewhat disheartened. “A few weeks ago the whole sports hall was filled to the roof. Things have slowed down.”
Cardboard boxes filled with dry goods, biscuits, pasta and lentils are stacked against the walls. Second-hand clothes and shoes – including an incongruous pair of bright pink high heels – are displayed on school desks. There are nappies, books, school supplies, bikes for children, a couple of wheelchairs, a few washing machines. Around 11,000 people, miners and their family members, have received help so far.
“Families of miners who died are allowed to come as often as they wish and take what they need,” the municipal official explains. “Survivors are allowed one visit each.” While he speaks an unemployed miner walks in. He has already picked up some items before and is uncomfortable at having to ask for handouts. “You’re only allowed one ration,” the official says apologetically. “We have your name in the computer. Sorry.” The man leaves, empty-handed.
“Donations have decreased,” says the civil servant. “We have food for maybe 20 or 30 people left. We need more. People should not forget about Soma. We still need help.” But it feels as though the rest of the country has moved on.
“They paid for silence”
In July, Recep Tayyip Erdogan was named the AK Party candidate in the 2014 presidential election. The winner of the race would be the first popularly elected head of state. The same month, Erdogan announced that families of dead miners would receive compensation of around TL150,000 (£42,000), in addition to two free apartments each which were to be built in Soma by the public Housing Development Administration (TOKI). Families would also receive monthly pensions of around TL1,500 (£400).
However, 67 of those who died were not married, and so far their relatives have not received any help. No pensions have yet been paid for killed miners without “a wife and children to look after,” leaving many dependent relatives destitute. Women married only by an imam – a practice that is illegal but quite common in rural Turkey – hold no civil certificates and are therefore not eligible for payments either.
Thousands of miners who are currently out of work and on a reduced salary while the area’s mines remain closed are also worried about how to pay their mortgages, bills and daily expenses.
“Every miner’s family lives in debt,” says Nihat Çelik, a miner who survived the blast. “After the prime minister’s announcement we thought we are all cared for now, but the opposite is true. All they managed to do is shut everybody up. They paid some people some money, and left everybody else hoping for their turn. They paid for silence.”
He says that the payments also split the town between those who received help and those who did not. It has helped to defuse dissent against the mining company and the government.
“You see, all we now talk about in Soma is money, not the reasons for the incident. We don’t talk much about those responsible for all of our dead friends any more, but everyone seems to envy everyone else,” he says. “People are angry at each other, feeling short-changed.”
At the cemetery just outside town, 41 graves are lined up in two neat rows, all of them decorated with Turkish flags, hardhats and ribbons.
An elderly woman arrives with her two sons. The third, Ramazan, died in the mine on 13th May. At his grave she breaks down, wailing inconsolably. “Keep your filthy money,” she says to no one in particular. “You cannot bring my son back to me!”
Meryem Aktas, the wife of a retired imam who conducted many of the funerals, says that the government was lucky that not all 301 miners are buried in the “martyrs’ cemetery” in Soma, that families from the surrounding villages wanted their loved ones to be close. “It might just have caused a riot otherwise,” she says, looking around. “Can you imagine the sight of 301 dead men in one place? Millions would have come to the funerals from all over Turkey.”
Havva Sevinç, 38, who lost her husband of 15 years in the incident, receives around 1,700 TL (£470) every month from his ‘death pension’ fund. She has not yet received the promised compensation, and she says that the house that she shares with her mother and three children is leaky and humid, leaving the youngest child suffering from bronchitis.
Like many others, Sevinç feels that the mining company should have been able to prevent the incident.
“One month before the accident Celal told me that it was very hot inside the mine. He started to develop terrible headaches because of the fumes. He couldn’t really sleep at night.” She pauses. “He said that something was wrong at the mine. He and his colleagues felt constantly dizzy after coming back above ground.”
Sevinç says that her husband had made plans to quit his job as a miner to start a business as a driver.
“He always said that he wanted to leave the mine, that he wanted another job. Celal only had two years left before retirement from his position underground.” She shakes her head sadly. “And it was always me who urged him to hang in there, to keep going. I knew that if he would quit early, he would lose a big part of his pension. Sometimes I feel like I sent him to his death.”
She says that she was afraid to let him go each time he left for his shift. “Every morning we sent him away with prayers. We were always afraid that we would not see him again. The work in the mines is so dangerous.”
Workers have no value, they are expendable, almost like slaves”
Turkey has still not ratified the International Labour Organization’s convention on health and safety in mines. Erdogan publicly vowed to investigate the incident thoroughly and punish those who are responsible, but Sevinç says she has no hope that justice will be served. “There is so little accountability for the mine owners. There have been accidents before, and nothing changed.” With the help of volunteer lawyers, activists of the civil rights group Justice for Soma, a group of families have opened their own court case against Soma Kömür. “It is easier when we all stick together,” says Sevinç.
“If they could, not a single man would go back down there”
Soma’s stasis may soon come to an end. Mining companies have been sending registered mail to the workers of the remaining pits unaffected by the incident, telling them that the mines will reopen soon. For some it is welcome news. “Businesses have suffered. The economy needs to get back on its feet,” says Nadirhan Hizli, a coal trader and member of the board at the Soma Chamber of Commerce. “We do need work safety, [but] the miners need to get back to work again”.
Back at the Savastepe teahouse none of the men in the miners’ association believe that working conditions will have improved. “Miners are expected to undergo safety training and start working again. Those who don’t show up will have their wages cut off, or be fired.” says Mehmet Yilmaz. “But we are scared to go down there again. How can we trust a company that killed many people? In Germany, in the UK, they value workers. Not in Turkey,” he continues. “Workers have no value, they are expendable, almost like slaves. The bosses don’t care about safety. They don’t have to.”
Others around the table agree. “We were used to maybe one or two people dead,” Kemal Berk, a miner of nine years says. “That was normal. They didn’t even stop production for that; we all continued as if nothing had happened. A broken leg or a severed finger did not even count as an accident! That happened all the time.”
Yilmaz says that he will not go back to work for the mining company, that as a welder he can find work above ground. Most others are not as optimistic.
“In Savastepe the only source of income is mining. It’s all we have. For one spot in a mine there are three to four applicants,” Berk explains. “And every miner here has financial problems, struggling with bank loans and debts. If they could, not a single man would go back down there, but we don’t have a choice.”
On Sunday 10th August 2014, Turkey held its first ever presidential election. Soma, formerly an AKP stronghold, narrowly voted for opposition candidate Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, but AKP’s Erdogan won with 51.95 percent of the national vote. Soma’s closed mines soon reopened and the miners returned to work. When issue #15 of Delayed Gratification went to print, Turkey’s Chamber of Mining Engineers (MMO) claimed that 20 more people had been killed in work-related accidents in other mines in the country since May.
Some names in this story have been changed.
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