Europe

Turkey mine disaster: Raw anger in Soma a year on

Sevim Cata holds a photograph of her two sons, Suleyman and Ismail. May 2015
Image caption Sevim Cata: "This year, on Mother's Day, I had no sons"

At times she stares vacantly into the distance, at others she mutters under her breath, barely audible. As she clutches the photograph of her twin sons, Sevim Cata is still numb, a year on.

On 13 May 2014 she was crushed. A fire had broken out in the local coal mine in Soma. One of the pits was engulfed with carbon monoxide. It was Turkey's worst ever industrial accident: 301 miners died, some burnt alive, others suffocating. Among them, Sevim's boys - Suleyman and Ismail.

The BBC met Sevim last year. Consumed by grief, she told how her sons had done everything together. They married on the same day, lived together and their bodies were found embracing each other.

A year on, we returned to Sevim's village and found a community that may never truly recover. "When I close my eyes, I see them", she says, "I still believe the doorbell will ring and it will be them. This year, on Mother's Day, I had no sons."

Her three young grandchildren play around her, left fatherless by the disaster. When I ask how the families of the victims have been cared for over the past year, she falls silent. Politics is her husband's domain.

Image caption Ahmet and Sevim Cata have had little support from the authorities since the disaster

"We get 1,000 lira (£230; $370) a month as our sons' pensions," says Ahmet. "But nobody from the government has visited us, nobody has come to see how we are. I feel betrayed. I used to vote for the [governing] AK Party but never again."

Devastation turned to rage against both the mine executives and the government last year over a tragedy that could have been prevented.

The formerly state-run mine was leased to a private company in 2005, Soma Holding, but was still owned by a government conglomerate, Turkish Coal Enterprises. Both refused to talk to us.

As the owners sought to reduce the cost of production - the Soma CEO boasting that he had lowered it from $140 a tonne to less than $24 - safety standards were compromised.

Ventilation was poor, gas masks were defunct. Key equipment was no longer imported but bought locally, such as transformers, one of which exploded causing the fire.

Image caption The mine owners brought down costs but safety was compromised

A cosy relationship between government officials and mine executives meant problems were ignored. Two weeks before the disaster, the opposition had called for an investigation into accidents at that very mine - but the governing party rejected it.

When Recep Tayyip Erdogan - then prime minister, now president - visited Soma shortly after the tragedy, he stoked the anger. Deaths were part of the job, he told distraught relatives, giving the example of industrial accidents in England in the 19th Century.

Protests forced him into a local shop to take refuge, where footage appeared to show him allegedly hitting a demonstrator. One of his aides was photographed kicking a protester.

A year on, fury still seethes in Soma. Huge rallies broke out there last weekend. Some who took part were dressed as miners, others carried photographs and the names of those who died. Chants rang out of "Erdogan: thief, murderer" and "the coal of Soma will burn down the government".

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Media captionA recent rally in Soma displayed a banner with the names of the 301 victims

Ergul Yuksel lost her husband, Ali, in the disaster. Clutching her crying daughter, she tells me the government is protecting those responsible, shifting the blame on to easy scapegoats.

Some 45 company executives are currently on trial but the government has blocked the investigation of any minister or civil servant, a decision challenged by the state council.

"This is not an accident, it's murder," Ergul says. "As long as this government remains, there can be no justice."

Economic boom

Soma shone an uncomfortable light on Turkey's terrible record of workplace deaths: the highest in Europe and among the worst in the world.

On average, five workers now die here every day. Last year, the number of industrial-related deaths hit 1,886, up from 878 in 2012, according to the Turkish Assembly for Workers' Health.

By farming work out to subcontractors, suppressing the unions and awarding construction contracts to magnates on the basis of their support for the government, rather than their safety record, the rate of deaths here continues to soar.

Last September, 10 workers died while building the Torunlar skyscrapers in Istanbul when a lift plunged 32 floors. The same elevator was said to have malfunctioned before but company executives ignored the warnings. Again, the firm and the ministry of labour refused our request for an interview.

At the Torunlar construction site, labour rights specialist Asli Odman tells me an emphasis on Turkey's economic development at any cost is the problem. We speak beside a huge AK Party poster displayed ahead of next month's election, which trumpets the "new Turkey".

Image caption Asli Odman says the government wants to be associated with economic success

"The economic boom here is being pushed too fast - at the expense of human lives," she says.

"It's being done to save Turkey from a financial and political crisis, by associating the government with economic success. But workplace homicides - and they are homicides - is the price we're paying."

At a small cemetery near Soma, two new graves lie in the overgrown grass, those of Suleyman and Ismail Cata, the twin victims of the disaster.

Their parents come regularly to water the roses that cover the tombs, Turkish flags fluttering above. On the gravestones are the date that this community will never forget, 13.05.14 and two words: "maden sehidi", "martyr of the mine".

Image caption The graves of Suleyman and Ismail Cata in the small cemetery near Soma

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