Faintest of hopes for Turkish miners disappear amid bitter protests

There’s distrust of the official death toll as well as of the government

Turkish riot police clash with protestors during a demonstration for the victims of the Soma mine explosion, in Istanbul. Photograph:  EPA/Ulas Yunus Tosun

Turkish riot police clash with protestors during a demonstration for the victims of the Soma mine explosion, in Istanbul. Photograph: EPA/Ulas Yunus Tosun

Fri, May 16, 2014, 01:00

If Tuesday was a day of shock and Wednesday one of anger, then yesterday was when hope was lost forever for more than 100 trapped miners in the eastern Turkish town of Soma.

Early yesterday morning President Abdullah Gul’s security operation swept into the area. They would not speak to reporters.

Caydas Cengiz had travelled down from Istanbul “to help in any way we can”.

Spending the night in his car, he and his friends said they would stay as long as they were needed. “You see that when the president of Turkey arrives, they [the police] want everyone to leave. They’re afraid of protesters,” he said as a new barricade went up.


Pushed back
Locals, press and onlookers were pushed several hundred metres from the mine’s entrance to facilitate the president’s tour.

One man pleaded with a gendarme soldier clearing the area. Pointing towards the mine, he asked could he and and his two companions be allowed behind the cordon. The soldier relented.

Loud, angry shouts heralded the president’s arrival in the early afternoon. One man in a blue chequered shirt stood on top of a block of mining machinery.

“I don’t want any police or soldiers here, I want first aid help,” he screamed at the president, as he broke down, sobbing uncontrollably. His grief was well founded – rescue teams had reported that 14 miners had to take turns breathing from oxygen masks in a refuge chamber before they died.

Across the country, anger has swelled to outrage over the deaths of 282 miners following Tuesday afternoon’s explosion. The official death toll remained unchanged for much of the day, even as ambulances continued to ferry dead miners away.

President Gul stayed an hour and a half yesterday before his convoy of 20-plus cars and SUVs left, avoiding Soma’s town centre, 15km to the north.


No ambulances
There was an eerie silence at the town’s hospital. Outside, schoolchildren offered water and bread to passersby, and families milled around the grounds, though there were no ambulances arriving.

The dead were being sent to their families to be buried, or to mosques across the province. Many of the dead were from towns dotted around the region, men that had come to earn a living in one of the region’s many coal mines.

Only a few of the miners suffered serious injuries, said Dr Ahmet. “Those that came were treated within a few hours and were able to leave quickly,” he said.

“The reason there’s no one at the hospital is because the government is afraid there’ll be a riot right in the town centre, so they are sending the injured to other hospitals,” said an English teacher from central Soma, who asked not to be named.

The scene at the town’s cemetery was grim. By mid-afternoon, hundreds had gathered to bury their dead. Workers were still digging graves in expectation of more bodies.

A group of women and children stood over the freshly-covered grave of Ferhat Avkas, his picture adorning a simple wooden sign.

After the crowds left following the mass burial, the family sat down on a concrete curb to cry together alone.


Demonstration
The people of Soma are planning their own demonstration at the town’s government buildings today.

Some have already gathered outside the house of the mine’s general manager, Ramazan Dogru, in the town centre where a several-thousand crowd had already called for the resignation of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The authorities are ready – hundreds of riot police have taken up their positions outside the police station.

Some of Soma’s residents claim the number of dead and trapped miners far exceeds the official toll.

A pharmacist said at least 400 were trapped or had died. Friends of miners speak of similar figures.

“I don’t think they will be saved,” said 27-year-old Ismail Yildirim, sitting on a rock outside the mine.

“I think they will find many hundred more dead – I know at least one hundred people that are trapped down there.

“I don’t think they will be saved,” he said.