The “mining martyr” debate: “A veil to cover up the faults of the perpetrators”

The “mining martyr” debate: “A veil to cover up the faults of the perpetrators”
Update: 21 October 2022 22:20
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The disaster in in Amasra that killed 41 workers led to debates on both occupational safety and precautions taken in the mines as well as on the concept of “mining martyrs.”

After the mining disaster in Bartin, both the government and the opposition started to use the “mining martyr” phrase again. Yet, according to the families and the lawyers of those who lost their loved ones in the Soma Disaster, the concept is used to hide the perpetrators.

According to the 2021 Social Security Institution (SGK) data, a total of 17,000 occupational accidents occurred in the mining sector in Turkey. Turkey ranks first in Europe in the number of fatal work accidents in mining. Yet, in addition to the precautions that should be taken, the “mine martyr” expression used for the dead miners has become a topic of debate. Conducting an investigation in Bartin, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said: "It is the state’s and our duty, as its highest representatives, to protect the legacy of our mining martyrs.”

Yet what does the government's definition of “mine martyr” mean to the workers who died in these routinely occurring mining accidents, especially after the last disaster that resulted in the death of dozens of workers? What do the families and lawyers of those who lost their lives in the mines think about it? Could families benefit from the rights given to relatives of "martyrs?"


The “mining martyr” expression became renowned after the Soma disaster, where 301 workers were killed in 2014. Ismail Colak, the chair of the Soma 301 Miners’ Social Assistance Association who lost his son in the disaster said that the “mining martyr” discourse does not mean anything to them. Colak stated that after the Soma Massacre, the government referred to those who died as “miners are our martyrs”, and that this turned out to be mere words. According to Colak, who claims that capitalists, yellow unions, and the government are responsible for the mining disasters, the “martyr” rhetoric serves no purpose other than to deception.


Berrin Demir, one of the lawyers who closely followed the Soma Case, emphasized that working conditions are strictly regulated by the law. According to Demir, considering the regulations, the measures that should have been in place are clear and the disaster in Bartin was as predictable as it was in Soma. This is why, Demir argues, that the “martyrdom” discourse is a veil to cover up the faults of the perpetrators.

Demir thinks that another purpose of the “martyrdom” rhetoric is to suppress the anger of the families. She says: “The concept of martyrdom has a spiritual side. However, the reason for this massacre is greed for profit. This concept of the spiritual world is used to prevent resistance and to individualize the event.”


Similar to Demir, Basaran Aksu, the Organization Specialist of the Independent Mining Union, states that the “martyrdom” discourse should be evaluated in two ways. According to Aksu, there are examples from the history of the working-class where oppressed workers mythologized their dead relatives and friends using sacred concepts and titles. However, Aksu adds that the main reason for the ruling class to use this discourse is to cover up the faults of the capitalist state and to render the oppressive forms of relations invisible to the working class.


Martyrdom is a concept that also includes legal rights. As a matter of fact, Erdogan, who was Prime Minister when the Soma Massacre happened, said that he had given instructions for the necessary legal arrangements to be made for the dead miners to be legally considered as "martyrs." The argument was that the families of those who lost their lives in Soma would be given salaries and their relatives would be given job opportunities.

Ismail Colak states that despite the instructions, none of these rights were granted. He says: “They referred to the dead miners as martyrs on TV but in reality, this has no meaning,” and adds that no family has benefited from any rights.

Berrin Demir states that one person from each family was, in fact, given a job. However, she also says that this right only meant working in the public sector and that not all families have benefited from this. Adding that the death pension received by families is in fact a requirement of the labor law, Demir says:

“This is an income that is a result of the premiums they paid. After the Soma disaster, 55 thousand Liras was distributed to families. That money consisted of the donation money collected by the people in the Prime Minister's account.”

Demir makes a reminder about the controversy on those donations and adds that she asked for information about the amount of collected donations; about the amount that was distributed and what method was used. The answer she received was that "the money was distributed equally to the families."


In this process, the relatives and lawyers of the “mining martyrs” who lost their lives in the Soma Massacre were subjected to pressure. Not only did they not get the justice they sought, but their troubles grew.

After the Soma Massacre, Yusuf Yerkel, a former aide of then Prime Minister Erdogan, kicked Erdal Kocabiyik, a miner’s relative. Later, Yerekl received a report that suggested “his foot was hurt." Kocabiyik, on the other hand, paid a fine of 631 Liras, including interest, on the basis that he damaged the Prime Minister's security vehicle.

The distress experienced by the miners’ relatives was not limited to Yerkel's kick. After the Soma massacre, the Soma Municipality, which had allocated a place for the association that was formed by the miners' families, demanded that the unit should be vacated or its rent should be paid.

In addition to the association’s troubles, the Soma Komur AS, which did make any payments in the lawsuits filed by the miners’ families, had the families' accounts seized in order to pay their attorney's fees to the amount 10,00 Turkish Liras.

Selcuk Kozagacli and Can Atalay, who were the lawyers of the miners' families throughout the process, are in prison due to the sentences they received in different cases.


Ismail Colak, the chair of the Soma 301 Miners’ Social Assistance Association, recounts what happened after the mine disaster and reiterates his demand for justice. Colak says:

“We wanted a fair trial and that those who are responsible for the massacre should be tried. They kicked the relatives of the miners they called martyrs on the ground. Lawyers fighting for justice, Selcuk Kozagacli and Can Atalay are in prison. We buried justice alongside our children. What kind of martyrdom is this? How is this being a martyr family?”

Berrin Demir underlined that considering the events that took place, all mechanisms work to protect capital. He said that the "whisper newspapers" were active in the aftermath of the Soma Massacre and added that they tried to discipline the families who opposed and reacted against these reports through threats and suggestions that the payments would not be made.


Basaran Aksu, on the other hand, stated that the events that followed the “mining martyr” debate is normal for the “neoliberal state.” According to Aksu, in order for the state to maintain lawless and brutal working conditions, the bosses need to be protected instead of being brought to justice. Aksu said: “They provide preventive services and preventive practices in order to stop these events from turning into a social cause. Because they have to maintain this brutal labor regime. They also know that people are dying every day. Every month, at least 200-250 workers are murdered in Turkey.”

According to the people we interviewed on the subject, the “mining martyr” expression is used as a veil, and this discourse is also a sign that measures against future accidents will not be taken.