Soma Tragedy Erdogan Faces Fall-Out From Mine Disaster
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.
- Part 1: Erdogan Faces Fall-Out From Mine Disaster
- Part 2: The Question of Responsibility