The mining disaster at Soma is now the topic of a film. The disaster had powerful political repercussions in Turkey, illustrating as it did the cowardice of those in power protecting corruption in a sector where exploitation took precedence on all safety precautions.
“The accident” which occurred in 2014 at the Soma coal mine in Manisa is the most deadly industrial disaster in Turkish history. On May 13, just as the change-over was taking place between the day and the evening shifts – with 787 miners inside the mine – a fire started in one of the shafts and spread into the galleries. A number of miners died, trapped by the flames and the toxic fumes.
The loss of 301 lives of miners aged between 18 and 53 years… Hundreds of bodies were pulled out of the mine, one after the other in the hours following the disaster, making the seriousness of the event obvious to all eyes. Despite attempts to cover up the “accident” and thanks to the journalists who arrived at the mine, public opinion was apprised of the true facts.
Dismal working conditions, clearly insufficient security measures, hasty or non-existent controls, the privatization policies carried out by the AKP government from the onset, labor practices focused on over-production by the owners solely devoted to profit and allied with the regime, paved the way for the disaster… Yet, a few months earlier, in October 2013, a demand was brought up to the Turkish Parliament, for the establishment of a commission charged with observing the frequent “labor accidents” in the Soma mines and this demand, signed by 60 parliamentarians was voted down by the AKP on April 29 2014, barely 15 days before the catastrophy…
A trial began on April 13 2015. 37 people, including the director general and the technical directors were on trial. On July 11 2018, at the 22nd hearing, 37 accused were acquitted and 14 were sentenced to prison. The former Director General Can Gürkan was sentenced to 15 years in prison for his “negligence” in putting the mine’s profitability ahead of the miners’ safety. The families appealed this decision, requesting a sentence for “homicide”. The Court of Appeals annuled the verdict in September 2020. In the meantime, in April 2020, the ex-Director Can Gürkan, benefited from the amnesty decreed in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic and was liberated. In Feburary 2021, the tribunal ruled that the accused would be put on trial again, but not re-incarcerated in the meantime.
Still today then, men who were responsible for homicides are being put on trial while those in power and their allies attempt to transform their actions into minor offenses, while the families of Soma pursue their quest for justice…
The documentary “Paşa Vardiyası” (Evening Shift) tells the public what has happened since the Soma disaster, through the testimony of persons who experienced this period from within. The documentary aims at providing a historical archive and, also, at sharing this bitter experience with unions all over the world.
Hacay Yılmaz, representing at the time the Aegean region of the Workers Revolutionary Miners Union (Devrimci Maden İşçileri Sendikası) at the time of the disaster, took on the role of producer for this documentary. Sevda Aydın served as director, after being the correspondent for the daily Evrensel who covered the event for days, on location.
We had exchanges with the producer and the director concerning “Paşa Vardiyası”, a documentary that will soon find its audience.
Dear Hacay, dear Sevda, first of all, can you share with our readers your account about the period of the disaster?
Sevda, Hacay • The Soma mining disaster was just like Marquez’ “Chronicle of an announced death”. A disaster was coming to this tiny mining town. One that had been built up day after day, step by step. It was approaching.
Originally, the local population lived off agriculture but in recent years this was annihilated by the neoliberal policies of successive power holders. These people had no other choice than to work in the mines. Soma’s underground contains large mineral deposits. The mines were managed by a public organism, the Turkish Authority on Coal Operations (Türkiye Kömür İşletmeleri – TKİ).
Little by little the mines previously managed by the TKI were privatized and handed over to sub-contractors. Exploitation rights were ceded. Thus, the greater part of the open pit and underground mines in Soma were transferred into the private sector. The bosses in the private sector had only one objective: making constantly more money. And in order to do so, they produced at minimal cost.
Regulations for the health and safety of workers were not respected. Production was pursued without protective measures, at the lowest possible cost. Although experts and the TKI issuedd warnings to reduce the amount of coal extracted every year, their warnings were ignored, and the goals set for production were exceeded on numerous occasions. The fact workers died under these constantly harsher conditions was ignored. “These “accidents” that were nothing other than crimes were considered to be natural. But a disaster was in the making, similar to a massacre. Those in power who were privatizing the mines were aware of it. The Minister of Energy, responsible for mining, knew it. The State civil servants who showed up for the controls, knew it. As did the main owner of the mine, the TKI. Finally, the union of which the miners were members knew it also. The workers issued warning, nobody paid attention. The massacre was moments away.
When the calendar read May 13 2014, disaster struck, and the massacre occurred. And we who have put together this documentary using our different points of view, were direct witnesses of it.
“Paşa Vardiyası” – Trailer (with English subtitles).
Sevda • At the time of the disaster, I worked for the daily newspaper Evrensel, as correspondent and editor of the paper’s cultural pages.
On that day, the news broke after we had already sent in local information and were preparing the pages for Istanbul. The TV was on Hayat TV, a station that was later shut down by governmental decree. On the screen in front of me, the flash bulletig announced the accident. Evrensel’s Izmir and Istanbul correspondents rushed toward Soma.
The employer, power representatives and those media at the beck and call of the regime were strenuously attempting to hide the gravity of the disaster, the number of dead workers and, especially, the causes of this disaster. But despite their efforts and the obstacles raised by the police and the gendarmerie who had placed the mines as if under siege conditions, we obtained information thanks to the determined work of our journalists and the workers’ organizations on site. We were able to inform our readers and viewers. This is how the real information reached international audiences.
As can be seen from the recordings done by colleagues who shared their archives with us, each moment is filled with pain. When you pronounce the word “Soma”, hundreds of snapshots come to mind. For they are imprinted in the memories. Miners being kicked on the ground, families howling in grief, children waiting for their father, molested lawyers, angry workers, all those images are also imprinted in my memory bank. But following the disaster, they emptied the streets in Soma. The voices of anger, of suffering, of solidarity, of organized solidarity, of justice were chased off the streets of Soma. The only image that now remains is that of the silence on those streets.
Hacay • At that time I was the representative for the Aegean region of the Dev.Moden-Sen ((Devrimci Maden İşçileri Sendikası – Revolutionary mining workers Union), affiliated to the DİSK (Confederation of Turkish Revolutionary Unions). We were not an organized and accredited union in these mines, but we were in contact with some of the miners and following the privatizations, we were closely monitoring working conditions. We shared our evidence with the public.
Approximately two hours after the news broke, I went with other comrades to the Eynez mine in Soma where the disaster had occurred. Access to the mine was cordoned off by the police and the gendarmerie. The workers’ relatives were in tears and asking “What happened? How many workers are still in the mine? How many have died?” No one answered them. There was nothing but a constant back and forth of bodies wrapped in blankets being pulled out of the mine and carried to the ambulances. Were these people wounded or dead? No one said a word. The relatives asked, cried, pleaded, but received no answers. It was said that at the time of the “incident” hundreds of people were in the mine, but there was no information as to whether they were dead or alive…
Hours went by. The salvage team proved to be insufficient. Hours later, I crossed the gendarmerie’s cordon toward the zone where they held the ambulances and I looked inside. I was stunned. It was empty. No medical or reanimation equipment in it. It then became obvious that the bodies wrapped-up like wounded people were lifeless. They were acting this way to avoid an avalanche of anger from the crowd gathered there. Nor were they announcing the destination of the bodies being transferred.
During those late night hours, we put together a delegation with deputies from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) Levent Tüzel and Selma Irmak, and spoke with the Minister of Energy who was in the building with the directors of the mines. When we questioned him about this situation, he was enraged and answered ‘no, this is not true!” He got even angrier when we questioned the insufficiencies in the salvage teams, explanations on why the families were not being informed and why no news was available on the number of workers in the mine, and the number of deaths. We shared our evidence with the media and information agencies that were contacting us, minute by minute.
The search continued for days and I stayed until the end. I watched all the developments from close up. We organized meetings in the villages and the mineworkers’ neighborhoods. We talked, discussed. We participated in the protests organized by the workers in the streets and squares of Soma, during the period of the disaster and after it. On a number of occasions we were molested and struck by the police, as were the workers.
With my friend the journalist, we prepared this documentary providing testimony from the main parties concerned so that this disaster which I witnessed personally, may never be forgotten.
You have just finished producing and directing the documentary “Paşa Vardiyası”, in which you wish to bring to light the Soma disaster. What do you wish to say about this documentary where “witnesses speak about the accomplices to the disaster”? What were your aims when you set out on this journey?
Sevda • I settled in Izmir three years after the disaster. I worked as a correspondent for the news agency Mezopotamya (MA) for the Aegean region. Soma and the neighboring districts used to have a rich agricultural production but lost all this wealth folowing the pillaging done by the firms exploiting the mines, and the people were impoverished. Today, almost all the villagers work in the mines. They have no choice given the absence of important factories and the low wages. The situation is so bad that even those who lost close ones in the disaster are forced to carry on working in the mines, despite the risks.
Since then, on every yearly anniversary of the disaster, I write. I followed the trials. I covered the workers protests as they fought for their indemnities. The silence I mentioned earlier settled over the area during that period. I wanted to find the causes behind it. Why had all these people who had been through such a disaster, suddenly so silent? I wanted to understand.
At first, I spoke with various workers and then with the families. And through these “off the record” exchanges, I understood that the businessmen and those in power had intimidated the population in Soma, by scaring them over unemployment and with religious pressure, so that everything would be forgotten. This is how the voices disappeared from the streets…Yet, the most common slogans during the Soma workers’ protests were “Soma, do not sleep, support your miner”, “Don’t forget, don’t let 301 miners be forgotten”…
With this documentary, we want to put the spotlight on those who created this silence, precisely so the miners will not be forgotten.
Hacay • This disaster which claimed the lives of 301 minors is one of the most murderous catastrophes of all times. As a union man and an author, from start to finish, for months on end, I spoke with the workers, village by village, neighborhood by neighborhood. Having shared everything with them, I thought it necessary to make this important event unforgettable and transmit the facts to the future. It was also a duty for me as a responsibility toward labor, the working class, the oppressed. My objective is thus to carry forward this disaster to the future, with the testimony of the ones mainly concerned, their images, their videos, in a coherent whole…The public will tell us how well we have succeeded.
Previously, I had transformed into book form workers’ actions known historically as : “Tariş Direnişi” (Tariş Resistance 1) “Ölüm Yürüyüşü” (The death fly) and “Bahar Eylemleri (The Spring protests”2). I also attempted to narrate the painful story of a woman from Soma who lost her husband in the mining disaster in my novel “Acıları Ortaktı” (Shared Suffering) published recently in January 2021 by the Ceylen publishing house.
Why “Paşa Vardiyası” ?
Sevda, Hacay • “Paşa vardiyası” is a miners’ term. In their trade talk, the miners call the day shift “Gündüz Vardiyasi (day shift), “Paşa vardiyası” (“the Pasha’s shift, this being the evening one) and “Serseri vardiyası (the “vagabond’s shift being the night one). The Soma disaster occurred when the evening shift was about to begin. We lifted this term from one of the interviews we conducted with the miners, and used it as a title.
The Soma disaster has left its mark on Turkish public opinion. The trial were those responsible stood in judgment, ended in 2018 with an unfair verdict. The Court of Appeals has rejected this decision and the judicial process is beginning again. What do you think about it?
Sevda, Hacay • Following the decision from the Court of Appeal, the lawyers also sollicited an “equitable judgment” from the constitutional tribunal. During the recent hearing, pursued at the local tribunal on April 13 2021, the lawyers requested that the hearing be suspended awaiting the decision from the constitutional tribunal. But the local court rejected their request.
The Soma trial where those responsible for the gravest “work murder” stand trial clearly demonstrates that the profit of capital is protected at the cost of the workers’ lives and that this will continue. Speaking of the mine where the disaster occurred, and of the other mines managed by the Soma AS firm “the Minister of Energy had said “these are the safest of all mines”. This is not known. The State did everything so that it and its accomplices would not stand trial. Yet, along with the employers, the Ministry of Energy, the TKI, the labor inspectors who established reports on the mines’ “perfect condition”, are also directly responsible for the disaster. They should all stand trial before independent judges. But as we saw in the April 13 hearing, there is a will to rapidly close the Soma file by distributing sentences that are almost like rewards. This is the scene being prepared by the State. This dysfunctional justice is obvious, not only for the families and their lawyers, but for everyone in Turkey. For this very reason, even if justice cannot be obtained through legal means, those responsible have already been judged and condemned in the conscience of the people.
The Soma disaster is still like an open wound in the minds of the people in Turkey. This film thus will soon find a public, not to be forgotten. Hacay Yılmaz and Sevda Aydın also aim to share the documentary of this painful experience with unions across the world.
The Kedistan team is happy to act as a bridge between the producer and director of this documentary, and consider this a duty toward the Soma families and the miners who were victims of the disaster.
We therefore call on all unions willing to screen the documentary “Paşa Vardiyası” for their members to contact us.
Who are Sevda Aydın et Hacay Yılmaz ?
Sevda Aydın | Journalist. Born in 1984 she worked as correspondent and editor for the daily newspaper, Evrensel, producing information on art and culture for Hayat TV, and served as editorial advisor for the Evrensel cultural review. She currently works for the news agency Mezopotamya Haber Ajansı (MA).
Hacay Yılmaz | Writer. Member of the Assembly of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP). He spent close to 10 years in prison at different times including during the military coup in 1980. Along with his political and editorial activities during these long years, he has been part of the workers’ movement through union activity. Following his first book “Tariş Olayları”, he published some ten books of research, novels and short stories. Honorary member of the German PEN club.
Translation by Renée Lucie Bourges
You may use and share Kedistan’s articles and translations, specifying the source and adding a link in order to respect the writer(s) and translator(s) work. Thank you.