Grief turns to anger as Turkey watches mine disaster unfold

The rescue mission. EPA

In the deadliest coal mine disaster in Turkish history, the tragedy seems to tear this already polarised society even further apart. It has already been confirmed that more than 200 workers have been killed after a transformer blew up two kilometres underground, shutting down electricity supplies and ventilation systems. The search continues for the hundreds of people still believed to be trapped.

Mixed media response

There has been a big difference in the language used in reaction to the disaster on social media and the partisan mainstream media in Turkey. The outrage on social media resembled the anti-government reactions during the Gezi Park protest a year ago. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan followed his pre-scheduled program and participated in an award ceremony five hours after the explosion. With the death toll rising rapidly, this provoked rage towards his government on Twitter.

Hashtags like #kazadeğilkatliam (#notaccidentbutmurder) and #kaderdegilkatliam (#notfatebutmassacre) became trending topics while frantic relatives waited for news of loved ones. The mainstream television stations realised the tragic scope of the incident and switched to 24-hour live coverage, reflecting the significance of the tragedy. Meanwhile, pro-government media outlets were filled with political commentators advising the public not to use this accident for government bashing and only to pray for the trapped miners.

Seeing the magnitude of the catastrophe, Erdoğan then cancelled his one-day trip to Albania, decided to visit Soma after 22 hours and announced three days of mourning. But this failed to stop the anti-government sentiment from snowballing.

Shock to anger

Students boycotted classes at various universities and organised rallies that accused the 12-year AK Party rule of not implementing enough safety measures for workers. During Erdoğan’s party’s tenure, 11,000 workers have lost their lives in deadly accidents. Although the mine had repeatedly been praised for its health and safety record, the opposition CHP party’s petition for an enquiry into the safety of Soma’s mines was declined only last month.

The heartbreaking living conditions of coal miners in Turkey, who work in dangerous conditions for extremely low wages, sheds light on another aspect of the tragedy. One of the victims is a 15-year-old boy, which has triggered a discussion about the ethics of the private companies who run the mines and their use of child labour.

Criticism is being meted out against both the trend toward privatisation in Turkey as well as the government’s failure to take responsibility for the disaster. The day after the disaster, protesters gathered in Ankara against the energy ministry.

In Istanbul they blocked off the street in front of the Soma Holdings offices, branding the mine owners “murderers”, and people took to the floor of the subway in protest. Meanwhile, riot police and water cannons sealed off the streets of Soma prior to the Prime Minister’s visit to protect him from any abuse.

United in grief, splitting the blame

Rolling coverage of the mine showed people cheering and and applauding with the emergence of a number of trapped workers, their faces and hard-hats covered in soot. There has been a great deal of unity in support for the miners and their families, spurred by scenes of the many ambulances driving back and forth to carry the rising number of bodies as well as injured workers.

The most poignant scene came from a wounded miner. He was rescued and carried to an ambulance. While placing him on a stretcher, he whispered to the paramedic: “Let me take off my boots so the stretcher doesn’t get dirty.” This moving scene has widely been circulated on the social media with a comment “your boots are the cleanest thing in this country, my brother” reflecting the respect the public is showing to the victims of this mining tragedy.

But even tragedies of such gigantic magnitude and scenes of sadness cannot unite a polarised society. Prime Minister Erdoğan said: “These accidents happen all around the world. It is normal and comes with the territory [of mining].” But many people believe these kinds of accidents can and should be prevented and that human life in Turkey should have more value. As grief turns to anger, calls will continue to hold those who are responsible for this tragedy to account.