ISTANBUL: “This faculty is occupied,” reads a huge banner hanging from the mining department of an Istanbul university, where Turkish students have been holding all-night vigils over a devastating mine disaster that claimed over 300 lives.
What started as a small protest against the prestigious Istanbul Technical University’s links with the company that operates the mine in the western town of Soma evolved into a full-fledged occupation on Friday after around 1,000 students chained the doors shut.
Rubbing sleepy eyes, 21-year-old student Orkun, who only gave one name out of fear of repercussions, said: “We will hold until we get results.”
The occupation has already born some fruit, with the university announcing it would cut ties with the Soma Komur mining company, which used to have employees on the faculty’s advisory board. But that is not enough for the students.
“The faculty is complicit in the deaths of the miners. The mining company delivered a seminar here two weeks before the disaster. We will not leave this building until those responsible are brought to account,” Orkun told AFP.
They have other demands, including the resignation of Orhan Kural, a mining professor at the university who said those who died from carbon monoxide poisoning “died beautifully.”
Kural later apologized, saying he was just trying to explain the science behind the deadly gas, which caused the deaths of many miners at Soma after an initial fire on Tuesday sent it coursing through the mine.
“Carbon monoxide is lighter than oxygen, that’s why it is a favorable way to commit suicide,” he told local TV. “It is a very sweet death. You don’t feel anything.”
Access to the faculty building is only possible through a small window, and only students and “fellow occupiers” are allowed in.
Inside, the corridors are covered with anti-government slogans, graffiti and long lists of required items including food, blankets and computers.
The department has blossomed into a lively community, with “sleep rooms”, unisex restrooms and makeshift movie theatres where students screen documentaries about problems in the mining industry. Students hold heated debates one after another in jam-packed hall.
Just a few steps away, the names of each of the 301 miners who died at Soma have been written on the wall.
“We won’t be engineers of the murderers. We will be the engineers of the people,” reads one piece of graffiti.
Another reads: “The fire of Soma will burn the AKP,” referring to the ruling Justice and Development Party.
– ‘Wake-up call’ –
The middle class of Istanbul can feel far removed from the vast hinterland of Turkey, but this disaster has generated a broad outpouring of anger against officials and the government, who stand accused of negligence over lax safety standards and a heartless response to the country’s worst ever industrial disaster.
Both Soma Komur and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan have denied any responsibility.
But experts have cast doubt over the objectivity of the ongoing investigation into the disaster, since the inspectors are paid by mining companies.
Mehmet Torun, a former head of the Chamber of Mining Engineers in Soma, told AFP there was a lack of reliable risk assessment in the sector.
“The problem is, inspectors assessing risks in these mines are not independent,” he said.
It’s a fear shared by the students at Istanbul Technical University.
“Some of the experts inspecting the mine in Soma were probably a graduate of our school. But having a diploma does not automatically make you a good engineer. We need to remember that we need to be human first,” said Begum, another student at the sit-in.
“I hope this tragic disaster will be a wake-up call for everyone.”
The disaster triggered violent street protests in several towns and cities against Erdogan, who is already beset by a corruption scandal implicating his key allies.
They came two weeks before the one-year anniversary of nationwide anti-government demonstrations that killed eight people and wounded 8,000 others.
In the university, fresh protests are being planned.
“We will be on the streets on May 31 for our fathers in Soma,” says one young man to thunderous applause.
“This fire cannot be extinguished anymore!”