The images from Turkey in recent days have shown how much the country has changed. The explosion and underground fire at a coal mine in the town of Soma in western Turkey, where the number of dead reached 282 yesterday and another 100 are still missing, is the worst such accident the country has recorded. Until last Tuesday, the worst occurred in March 1992, when 263 miners were killed in an explosion at Kozlu, on the Black Sea coast. Then, as now, worried relatives gathered at the mine, and anxiety quickly turned to grief and rage. Today, dynamic protests and strikes have sprung up across the country, and two days ago the prime minister came under withering attack from relatives who accuse him of supporting his crony mine-owning friends at the expense of workers’ safety. In 1992, the miners’ relatives were alone and torn between the pain of their loss and the knowledge that if the mines closed the region would sink into poverty.
From 1992 I remember the cries of families, when they learned that the mine would be sealed with cement while many miners were still underground, because it was the only way to stifle the fire. Desperate relatives clashed with police a short distance from the shaft that would be closed with their sons, fathers and husbands inside. I remember bodies, under blankets. Tears had dug channels through the black dust on faces of silent men who had carried only dead colleagues into the winter light. I remember the grief and apprehension on the face of the main opposition party leader when he looked over at the relatives before getting into his limousine – I remember how shiny his black shoes were, like his hair.
I visited a mountain village lost in the clouds, submerged in grief, snow and mud. It had lost 15 men in the previous day’s blast. “It is dangerous, but we have to work there. No one wants the mines to close,” said Ali Demirce, a 32-year-old survivor and father of two, with burns and cuts on his hands and face. Mine union officials said the same. They were afraid the government would grab the opportunity to shut down the heavily subsidized mines where more than 32,000 people in the region worked. An average miner’s salary was 500 dollars, about double the national average. The life expectancy of a miner was 46, compared to the national average of 68.
The people were poor, with few opportunities. The state’s power was absolute and harsh. This paternalism still exists to a great extent, with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan its chief proponent after his decade-long domination of the political scene. But now the average wage is much greater than in the past, and, thanks to many of Erdogan’s policies, the country has enjoyed a rapid rise in living standards. Today, a vocal part of the population demands that government and state officials be held accountable for their acts and omissions. They might be a minority but they are determined. People may still be dying in the bowels of the earth, but today their lives have a greater impact on their country and their government. This is real growth – far greater than any rise in GDP.