The recent mine tragedy in Turkey brought back vivid memories of my own nightmarish trip down a Turkish coal mine many years ago. I was teaching English in a high school in Zonguldak, a major coal mining centre on the Black Sea coast, and noticed that one of the 40 students in my class would invariably sleep soundly during my lessons.
One day I approached this boy of about 16 and said I realized my classes were not all that exciting and that he probably had limited use for the English classes required by the state curriculum. Nonetheless, I added, could he please avoid snoring quite so loudly? The other kids chuckled at my naïve and snide witticism.
He was deeply embarrassed and apologized profusely. “It’s just that I work after school, my teacher, and don’t have much time to sleep.”
I assumed he worked in a store or restaurant in the town. Not at all. He explained that he had to work down in one of the deep coal mines in the evening shift. His father had been killed in a mining accident and he was now the sole provider for his family. His shift finished only a few hours before school began. It was a minor miracle that he showed up to school at all. This explained why he always seemed to have a slightly dirty face and neck. It was very hard to scrub away all the accumulated coal dust every morning.
Now it was my turn to be deeply embarrassed. To make up for my earlier gaffe I said I would like to join him one evening to see just what he had to go through. He was shocked and pleased that someone would actually like to experience what so many men in the town had to do every day. He said he would try to arrange it with the foreman and that I should show up at the mine entrance around 9 pm.
I knew absolutely nothing about mining and blithely agreed to be there. How bad could it be, I asked myself? Bad -- very, very bad I found out later. The other teachers I spoke with said I was completely nuts. They edged away and gave me a look usually reserved for soldiers going out on a mission where the chances of survival were slim to none.
The foreman at the mine entrance was sceptical about letting me in the mine, and finally agreed only after I promised to stay close to him. I looked around at the other men who had gaunt, resigned expressions on their faces as they helped me suit up and fasten the light to my helmet. The first 50 – 100 meters of our journey under the mountain were easy. The tunnel was tall and we could walk standing up. Then the tunnel began to shrink, and shrink, and shrink. Finally we were on our hands and knees crawling along with our heads bumping up against the ceiling of rock. By this time I was sweating buckets.
|Haunting face of a Zonguldak coal miner|
We kept crawling for what seemed like hours, but in reality must have been only about 20 minutes. Then we came to an intersection with another tunnel where we were met by a billowing cloud of coal dust. I peered around the corner and could just make out about six men shovelling coal onto a small conveyor belt that ran outside the mine. I couldn't tell how they got the coal off the face of the mine. I could only hope that they had a mechanical digger and didn't have to resort to pick axes.
While all this was going on rocks and pebbles kept falling on our heads. I was convinced this was the end and someone was going to have to tell my mother that her youngest child was buried under several hundred meters of a Turkish mountain. The men around me took all this in stride. One even said it was more or less normal. If this is what passes for normal what, I asked myself, would he consider abnormal?
The foreman sensed that I had seen enough at this point and signalled that I could lie on the conveyor belt and head back outside. I took another look at the scene around me with head lamps shining dimly through the dust and men sweating in the heat as they loaded coal, and I gratefully took my place behind mounds of coal for the ride to fresh air.
Once outside I took a look at my reflection in a lighted window and didn’t recognize myself. Covered from head to toe in coal dust with red-rimmed eyes I looked like something the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch would have created. To this day I refuse to go anywhere near a cave or other hole in the ground.
After that experience I told my student he no longer had to come to class. His A grade was guaranteed. He should use the time to get some sleep.
I lost touch with him after returning to America. Later I read of a mining disaster near Zonguldak that claimed the lives of 263 miners. I could only pray he was not among them.
All these images came rushing back as I read about the latest mine disaster that looks to claim a record number of lives. I am in no position to comment on the safety precautions or lack thereof in this particular mine, but Prime Minister Erdoğan’s remarks were notable for their incredible insensitivity. He was immediately defensive and claimed that these types of accidents happened all over the world. Unfortunately for him the particular example he used in Great Britain occurred in the 19th century, which is perhaps where he is most comfortable.
|Erdogan adviser kicking protester|
And one of his young advisers disgraced himself by kicking, yes, kicking another protester who was held down by two soldiers at the mine site. Undoubtedly Erdoğan will defend this fool’s reaction by saying he was ‘provoked’ or that the protester in question was a ‘terrorist militant’ who was trying to turn the mine disaster into a political statement. And indeed this is exactly what senior ruling party officials and their friends in the media tried to do. It would be comical if it weren't indicative of the lengths they will go to deny reality.
One wonders if repeated images of the advisor’s neat black shoe slamming into the downed protester will finally wipe some of the Teflon off Erdoğan and the narrow group of arrogant sycophants around him. And will people start to question whether the country's miserable worker safety record is symptomatic of the fragile foundations of the recent economic growth? It will be interesting to see what impact, if any, this latest mining tragedy has Erdogan's political plans.