"And they die an equal death — the idler and the man of mighty deeds," wrote the ancient Greek epic poet Homer in "Iliad." Nearly three millennia later, in Turkey "they do not quite die an equal death."
After 30 coal miners died in a May 2010 accident in Karadon, northern Turkey, then Prime Minister (now president) Recep Tayyip Erdogan resorted to Islamist fatalism to wave off criticism of what was an obvious administrative negligence: "Death is in the nature of mining."
Earlier this week, the main opposition party leader, Social Democrat Kemal Kilicdaroglu asked Erdogan a legitimate question: "Why is death not in the nature of French, British and Spanish mining but only in Turkish mining?" — a question not likely to be answered by any government politician.
Last March, Kilicdaroglu's party submitted a parliamentary motion to investigate alleged failings of safety standards at a coal mine in Soma in western Turkey. Erdogan's men voted to reject it. In May, the same coal mine exploded, killing more than 300 miners -- and putting the death toll from mining accidents in Turkey at around 3,000 since the Republic was established in 1923. By then Turkish mines were six times more dangerous than even the Chinese.
Smaller accidents after Soma at mines and construction sites have killed dozens more workers. In one particular case, revealing governmental protection for the potentially guilty, twelve Labor Ministry inspectors, who had given a "perfect score" to the Soma mine shortly before the accident, were preliminarily indicted, but the ministry refused to give permission for legal proceedings. (In Turkey, a government official cannot be prosecuted for negligence of duty without ministerial approval.)
Rescue workers and soldiers at the Soma mine in May 2013, Manisa, Turkey. (Image source: VOA/Hilmi Hacaloğlu)
On Oct. 28, 2014, about six months after the Soma tragedy, 18 miners were trapped underground in a coal mine in Karaman, central Anatolia. They were trapped about 300 meters underground by flooding caused by a broken pipe; under 11,000 tons of water, according to officials. Rescue workers, who pumped water out for days, failed to reach them, alive or dead, as of Nov. 5. The miners, according to coworkers' testimonies, were caught by underground floods during their lunchtime, as the mine owner did not allow them to eat outside the mine.
As usual, before the accident, several irregularities about the mine had been reported. "Why did you (miners) not complain to us," Erdogan said after the accident. He said that only a day after information surfaced that the workers had sent 124 letters of complaint to the Labor Ministry about the family that owned that mine and several others. The workers had complained about poor safety and "inhuman" working conditions.
Unwittingly, Labor Minister Faruk Celik confessed what really was wrong about the Turkish mines: "Whenever we attempt to close a mine, the employer brings in 50 well-connected people to lobby against the closure." In plain language, the minister was admitting shady relations with business cronies and nepotism, as a result of which scores of workers kept on dying.
As the Turkish rescue teams were trying to reach the trapped miners in Karaman, other rescue teams found the bodies of two Chinese miners in Bartin, northern Turkey, in another accident. The same day, a Turkish worker died at yet another mine in Kilimli, also in northern Turkey. And news bulletins reported that a woman had been killed under a cement-mixer truck; a train had run into a car, injuring seven; two minibuses had crashed, injuring seven workers; and four others had died in road accidents. News agencies did not report the more than 50 traffic accidents in one day in Istanbul only because, fortunately, no one had died. In Turkey, accidents are a part of daily life; they are perceived as "normal." Elsewhere, in more decent parts of the world, if a city reports 50 accidents in one day -- when there is no snow or rain -- it is news, Not in Turkey.
But on Oct. 31, a day before all that made the country stink of death, 18 people had been killed and 27 had been injured after a minibus rolled over into a ditch in Isparta, southwest of Turkey. The bus was carrying agricultural laborers, mostly women, working in a grove of apple tress in a town 50 miles away from their home. The bus had a capacity to carry 24 passengers, but when the accident happened it carried 46 people — 1,200 kg more than its capacity.
The bus driver had been fined more than $2,400 in just the previous two months for overloading, but was allowed to continue driving. And the laborers were hoping to reach the apple grove to earn their wage of $14 a day.
As Turkey mourned the trapped miners in Karaman and prayed for them — in vain, apparently — the Turkish government, which the minister confessed failed to close mines with poor safety records, did something generous for the families of the victims. It announced that the families would now get one ton of firewood for free! Not only that. Each family will get about $900 worth of social benefits from the government. And... A ton of coal, also free! The same coal their beloved ones lost their lives for.
Burak Bekdil, based in Ankara, is a Turkish columnist for the Hürriyet Daily and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.