Locals divided over Turkey mining disaster

Death of 301 Turkish miners has highlighted deep political divisions, as families accuse government of wrongdoing.

Some Turks have accused PM Erdogan of being responsible for the deadly accident at the Soma mine [Reuters]
Some Turks have accused PM Erdogan of being responsible for the deadly accident at the Soma mine [Reuters]

Kinik, Turkey – The voice of Aynur Sandik trembles with anger as she recounts the death of her husband 14 days ago.

Ibrahim Sandik died along with 300 other miners during a fire at the Soma coal mine on May 13, succumbing to smoke and faulty safety measures in the deadliest industrial accident in Turkey’s history.

“We feel ripped to pieces, and the man who is responsible for this leads our country,” said Sandik. Now, the widowed mother of three has accused Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of neglecting the plight of Turkey’s miners.

From an upper window of one house in Sandik’s hometown of Kinik hangs the flag of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). “Some want to use this event to strike at our country,” Tolga Bucak, a 43-year-old florist and Erdogan supporter said. “They plan to divide us by striking at our prime minister, but now is not the time for politics.”

Both households bear the pain of tiny Kinik, an ordinary town of 10,000 nestled in Turkey’s mountainous southwest. Kinik lost 52 miners in the disaster, the highest death toll of any community tied to the Soma mine. “At least in our sorrow, our community is drawn together,” Sandik said.

RELATED: Turkey defends mine safety despite disaster

Behind the shared feeling of tragedy, however, Kinik is a town divided. Two weeks after the disaster which has gripped wider Turkey, pain is mixed with politics as the search for answers about the disaster begins. In Kinik, as elsewhere in Turkey, one subject divides people more than any other: the behaviour of Erdogan.

“Everybody here already has strong opinions about this government,” said Kinik pensioner Korhan Adiguzel. “The accident has just made people more angry, more desperate.”

Erdogan angered many when he likened the Soma mine collapse to similar disasters in 19th century Europe [Reuters]

Erdogan sparked outrage and protest in Soma this month, when he likened the tragedy to similar catastrophes in 19th century Europe. “Let’s not say this doesn’t happen in coal mines. These things are commonplace,” he said.

Swarmed by a crowd calling for his resignation hours later, Erdogan confronted the mob, slapping a demonstrator. “Boo the prime minister of this country, and you’ll get a slap,” he said. Erdogan adviser Yusuf Yerkel went further, kicking a protester held to the ground by his security detail.

Tensions were high on a recent summer night in Kinik, where a few hundred miners occupied the town’s main road in protest of the accident.

“The prime minister cannot tolerate people who provoke him,” said 32-year-old Soma miner Ramazan Gursel. Gursel spoke of grievances shared by miners in the town: low pay, frequent accidents, the arbitrary way in which workers are fired or docked wages. But he argued miners should be protesting unfair working conditions, not their prime minister. “Erdogan will seek out our rights,” he said.

Overwhelmingly, those gathered in the town square disagreed. “The murderer state will be held accountable for the Soma massacre!” chanted part of the group. “This is a silent protest! No politics!” Gursel and others furiously replied. A chorus of miners shouted him down, and the few pro-government demonstrators vacated the gathering in anger.

“The coal of Soma will incinerate the AKP!” protesters chanted as they marched down the street, calling for the government’s resignation.

RELATED: Turkey mine disaster town under riot control

“Turkey has become so polarised that, even in the face of such a tragedy, this country simply cannot transcend its divisive politics,” said Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Istanbul-based Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies.

Turkey has been divided by a year of anti-government street protests and a sweeping corruption scandal. In March, the AKP won with a convincing 43 percent support in local elections, a victory which seemingly swept away those challenging the party’s 12 year rule.

Turkey's government has done everything in its power to reach out to victims. Local politicians have been swamped by this disaster, but material assistance has still been universally available. Nobody can deny that.

- Recai Berber, spokesperson for AKP parliament member

But while Erdogan’s supporters have remained largely faithful, many AKP supporters were unmistakably angered about Erdogan’s description of the Soma disaster as a “commonplace” accident. “Fate is fate, but can’t you take precautions?” said 46-year-old Kinik resident Murat Topaloglu, who nevertheless stressed his support for the prime minister.

Turkey’s government has opened a parliamentary inquiry into the disaster. It has also launched an investigation which has seen the arrest of eight, including the mine’s General Manager Ramazan Dogru and Can Gurkan, the CEO of Soma Coal Enterprises.

Turkey’s ruling party has also lent its support to a bill that would see improved inspections of the country’s mines, and defended its response to the disaster.

“Turkey’s government has done everything in its power to reach out to victims,” said a spokesperson for the AKP’s member of parliament, Recai Berber. “Local politicians have been swamped by this disaster, but material assistance has still been universally available. Nobody can deny that.”

But in one town near Soma, locals allege that partisanship has governed the response of local politicians to the disaster.

The small village of Elmadere, located near a crumbling Roman aqueduct in a valley south of the mine, lost 12 of its 550 residents in the disaster. Durmus Yildirim, head of the village, said that officials from the nearby AKP-controlled municipality of Kinik, which administers the village, did not attend the funerals nor contact the families of the victims. 

Yildirim said the town only cast 13 votes for the AKP during local elections in March, and accused the government of making aid contingent on political support.

Kinik’s mayoral office declined to comment, but said that the town had received emergency assistance from the Red Crescent, which coordinates its efforts with the Turkish government. The government said it has provided financial aid to 286 families effected by the disaster, and that this assistance would continue.

Meanwhile, villagers in the nearby town of Avdan, which lost three miners in the Soma disaster, praised the government’s response. “The government is absolutely at our side,” said Avdan resident Ozgur Canmutlu. “Meanwhile we have not seen a single representative of the opposition parties come here.”

Back in Kinik, widow Sandik wondered how her community’s political divisions – as well as her personal anger at the government – would affect her grieving process. “Anger is a poison that worsens our grief,” she said.

Source: Al Jazeera

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