Soma mine disaster protests at Soma Holding head office. Demotix/Nurcan Volkan. All rights reserved.On May 13 in the town of Soma, Turkey suffered the worst mining disaster in its modern history. According to official counts, 301 workers died after a fire trapped them underground, most poisoned by carbon monoxide. It left the country in shock and mourning.
Even in the eastern cities of Diyarbakir and Van, at the polar opposite end of the country from Soma, there are constant reminders. Banners hang from windows, over streets, at the gates of industrial estates. Children hawk cigarettes and bottled water next to video displays of black ribbons in shop windows.
Minibus drivers plaster stickers to their van bonnets, car drivers scrawl #soma into the dust on their back windscreens. Students hold a candlelit vigil in the shadow of a water cannon. Waitresses in upmarket cafes pin black ribbons to their shirts. In cafes where the unemployed and retired gather to drink tea and play cards, TV screens remain permanently tuned to news updates. Billboards next to construction sites, where builders lug blocks, perch precariously on scaffolding or sneak cigarette breaks, declare “our hearts are in Soma.”
To log onto social media is to be met with crowds of black square profile pictures, news articles, angry cartoons, reminders to pray, incitements to protest, indictments of protests. One friend excitedly tweets news of a university occupation in Istanbul; another, a meme showing a crowd of short-skirted female protestors and a man praying: “remember Soma with prayer, not like that.”
Turkey is united in shock and mourning. But already the cracks are beginning to show, and the search for someone to blame may shed a light on how deep those cracks run.
A divided society
To say that politics and society in Turkey are deeply divided is nothing new. This remains a country where a party facing street demonstrations and corruption allegations can win 45% of the popular vote in regional elections; where a prime minister can be met with both cheering, sobbing, flag-waving crowds and burning barricades; where one young woman can declare “Prime Minister Erdogan is the greatest man who lived since our Prophet, I love him more than my mother and father” while another skips classes to attend protests calling for his resignation.
These divisions have a long history: the ruling AKP’s support base is in general working-class and conservative, a section of society long marginalised in politics in favour of the secular nationalist middle-class. The AKP, with religiously-inspired policies and a breaking-down of old barriers such as restrictions on headscarves, has become the champion of the country’s long-silent majority, and introduced a new vision of modernity which centres around them, rather than excluding them.
To many of the secularist opposition, the AKP is an authoritarian party supported by the “uneducated” and even “brainwashed” masses; as one student protestor in Diyarbakir told me, “sadly, people support this government because they were never taught how to think.” To many of the AKP’s supporters, the opposition are sore losers, an elite unable to accept that they represent a minority in the country, throwing tantrums because they can no longer get drunk in the street, panicking about a few trees in central Istanbul while they ignored barefoot children for decades.
But many of those children are no longer barefoot. Even in the comparatively neglected cities of the south-east, streets are lined with smart new apartment blocks and expensive furniture stores ready to stock them; shopping centres are erupting like fungi where there were once gecekondu informal settlements. Economic growth under the AKP has been meteoric. Turkey’s economy has almost quadrupled in size since 2002, averaging a growth of 9% in 2010 and 2011. It survived the economic crisis with barely a twitch.
If a decade ago Erdogan’s support base was labourers in villages and slums, today many of them are the aspirational middle classes, teachers and businessmen in suburban high-rises. They may be snubbed as “uneducated”, but their children are packing in behind the desks in exclusive private schools.
And then this story was interrupted by one of the most brutal tragedies in Turkey’s modern history.
Seeing the cost
Rarely does a country in the throes of rapid modernisation and growth get to see so vividly and viscerally the cost of its success.
The images from Soma are stills from a nightmare: trapped workers sharing the last of their oxygen supply in the knowledge that there is not enough for all of them, bodies stored in a slaughterhouse, villages in which every household has lost a relative or neighbour.
Soma was the most spectacular manifestation of an ongoing disaster – which some are already calling a slow massacre. In the past ten years, there have been more than 11,000 work-related deaths reported in Turkey, mostly in the construction sector. An average of four people a day die in workplace accidents across the country.
In a grim price calculation, 7.2 miners die per million tonnes of coal mined.
The Soma mine was privatised in 2005, one of a wave of privatisations under the current administration. The private sector has driven production costs down – the Soma company boasted that they had cut costs by four-fifths – but more than twice as many miners die per million tonnes in privately-run mines.
Almost as soon as news of the catastrophe began to spread, evidence was emerging of the company’s negligence. The company has already admitted that there were insufficient refuge chambers, claiming that one was in construction but not ready at the time of the disaster. One mine worker claimed in an interview that he was sent into the mine with no training, and that gas masks were only carried “for show”: nobody knew if they worked or not. In another interview, one of the mine’s safety engineers accused the company of ignoring warnings about potentially faulty equipment and even of bribing inspectors.
A report in 2010 which warned that production in the mine should be immediately stopped until safety standards could be fully investigated was never acted upon.
But with a rate of worker deaths this high, in Soma and elsewhere, the fault can’t lie only with private companies – there appears to be a wilful blindness from the authorities. Turkey has yet to sign the ILO’s convention on mining safety. And as recently as April 29, the government rejected a call for a safety inspection at Soma during a parliamentary enquiry.
But listening to warnings costs money.
The ones left behind
The Soma catastrophe has revealed with brutal clarity the dark side of Turkey’s rapid economic expansion. But it has also revealed the other side of the story of Turkey’s polarisation.
The AKP have given a voice to the “other Turkey”. For the first time, Turkey’s majority are not hidden in the shadows in politics and national discourse. But on some issues, they remain silenced, and the realities of their lives remain ignored. As the economy has swelled, unemployment has continued to hover around ten percent. And many of the employed face dangerous working conditions, restrictions on unionisation, low pay and debt: several Soma miners have said that they must return to mining, despite the disaster, because they have debts to pay off. Their complaints and warnings go unheard.
There remains a class in Turkey who have been left behind. They may be supporters of the government – Soma was an AKP stronghold – but they have not seen many of the benefits of the new Turkey. The country’s growth was built on their backs and their blood, but they have gained little from it. They are the face of the new economy which is quietly killing them on construction sites and in mineshafts.
For now, Turkey remains united in mourning. Sporadic protests have erupted across the country, and unrest in Soma itself led to the town briefly being blocked off by the military, but the main response has been a furious sadness shared across classes and political persuasions. What comes in the next few weeks, as the search for justice and someone to blame intensifies, could change everything. The question is which side those who have been left behind will come down on.
On the outskirts of Van, many of those who lost their homes in the 2011 earthquake still subsist in a camp of shipping containers, though they are facing eviction even from these. On the gates, a black banner reads “Soma, we share your pain.”