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Thursday, May 15, 2014

Kicking at the Heart

Government aide captured kicking an alleged relative of a dead Soma miner three of four times during protest
Government aide captured kicking
an alleged relative of a dead Soma
miner three of four times during
a protest
By now we'll have all heard the news. Fires still rage in Turkey. Below and above the ground.

As a result of the disaster in the town of Soma near the Aegean, coal mines are being doused at the same time as protesters. People are venting their outrage over miners being treated as collateral damage by big energy companies, after a privatisation drive by the Turkish government.

Their anger has gone viral, and for those of us trying to understand how a different culture deals with national loss, sifting through the bigger picture and its smaller details can be difficult. But both are equally important.

To attempt some form of empathy requires the ability to adequately address the relationship between the two. Although the bigger picture is what makes us understand something, it is the smaller details that makes us feel what others might be feeling.

Trying to separate the human details from a seething political backdrop is equally hard. One tells of stories we all understand, while the other tells of things we may not, and the relationship between the two is not always clear.

The Soma disaster paints a stark picture of money-driven politics, but it turns the stomach to hang this political tableaux on the back of the hundreds of dead miners and their mourning families, so early on.

It can also detract from what is really important at a time like this. The stories of loss. The stories of death, of survival, and of hope that leads us out from one to the other. Of tight-knit mining families. Of trapped men huddled in groups taking turns to breathe, banding together to share the remaining air and their final moments with dignity. Of waiting womenfolk standing outside barriers with photographs of their loved ones, some silent, some crying for their husbands, fathers, brothers all working in darkness so that their families may live in the light.

To many in Soma, the dirt caked boots and coal sodden brow of the miner is a cleanliness next to godliness. It is the hard toil of people working for a wage to support their loved ones. There is no higher occupation in the eyes of a mining community, where daily sweat mingles with dirt and dust.

Tragedy has struck this down-to-earth community, and as with many things, it can get lost in the translation of politics. But the ghosts of Gezi haunt the political scene, and to a large minority it doesn't matter whether the government is really to blame or directly accountable for the national disaster or not.

Those in power are, however, clearly to blame for the way a great many people have taken to politicising the deaths of the miners. It is their legacy of response that poisons this well of tragedy. In Turkey everything at the moment is more politicised than usual. Every crisis is a photo-shoot opportunity or tweetable turn to either show your distaste or unyielding allegiance to the current government in power.

A payback of sorts, it was the public elect who nurtured this "them versus us" mindset, by fostering a slavish media culture and lack of accountability. It was an attempt to get people "on side" during Gezi - when what was required during those troubled times was to shoulder some responsibility, show a little decorum and allow people desirous to peacefully protest the space to do so.


Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan at Cannes 2014 (second from right) cancels reception in memory of miners who lost their lives

Sometimes we all have moments where our ghosts are loosed out into the room and we are totally pissed at them. It's only human. It's a natural response and shouldn't be penalised; it doesn't necessarily have to be about retribution for past issues, either.

But it becomes that, when people are not allowed the proper opportunity to air their grievances. The Turkish government will discover that this build-up is in danger of snowballing over everything they have worked hard to build. For this disaster has hit at the heartland of Turkey.

The miners can't be portrayed as part of some Westernised minority against conservative Islamic values. Albeit some Soma families are third or fourth generation miners originally from Turkey's Aegean region (an area traditionally much less conservative), many miners will have migrated and settled in the mining town of Soma from "middle" Turkey, sharing Anatolian values much like the government in power.

Therefore the government aide photographed kicking a protester was not lashing out at some subversive group; he was kicking the common man, the everyday voter. The government aide was in fact trampling upon the grass roots of the party he works for; he was kicking himself.

Some may get carried away and say he was kicking an entire country mourning for the loss of the miners, having taken them into their hearts as relatives.

And when we suffer loss in the effervescence of life, a lot more things bubble up to the surface with it. But while many of the widespread protests are linked to the unresolved frustrations underlying Gezi, this is different than gassing tree-hugging protesters in an urban park, and depending on how the government continue to react, it may do much to harm their image at home. Some have called it the Turkish prime minister's Katrina moment.

Outside of the country the government's image is pretty much in tatters, but in many ways they turned their back on the world after the Gezi protests, and likely do not care much for any outside opinion that fails to agree with their own.

As for my opinion, I don't give a fuck about the politics behind it. No doubt the government official will have his own side of the story (and will no doubt be removed from his post). But all I see is a man ready to viciously kick another man when he is down - on both sides of an imaginary divide. They could be any two men, from any race, colour or creed, in any town in the world. That's my bigger picture.

It just so happens it's not the politics of that photograph that stick with me. It is the stories of human suffering that have been pushed into its backdrop. Details, for instance, of a father stuck down in the mines scribbling a final message to his son asking for his blessing and forgiveness over any wrong he may have done in this life, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

Traditionally in Turkey it is the child that asks for this blessing from a living parent, but here it is the parent asking for forgiveness during his final moments. It is a story the government could learn a lot from.

Forgiveness and forgiving is indeed a blessing, often in disguise, when given and when asked for, and when worked at. But deep scars take the longest to heal, and it's also about being aware of paying your dues. It's what the ruling government's religion dictates, to send off their dead with their blessings, all debts paid in full.

As we try to find ways to forgive the transgressions against the dead, we need to forgive the living, too, however disheartening it is that, in reality, those who believe we are products of some special creation act more uncivilised than those of us who believe we are descended from cave-dwellers.

Yet in the end, no matter what your denomination, we all get what we pay for, and what we refuse to pay for, especially when we get into bed with certain principles.

So, you takes your choice, and you pays your price for your actions. And if we renege on paying our dues, we shall discover we'll have lost far more than we ever bargained for when it finally comes time to pay the piper - whether you believe that to be in this world or the next.

Read more: The Gezi Park protests | What I have to say >>

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