Mehmet Asher’s family is one of the lucky ones. His brother-in-law was rescued after being trapped underground for 10 hours at the site of Turkey’s worst coal mining disaster, which has claimed hundreds of lives amid fears that scores of bodies still need to be recovered.

Despite the trauma of witnessing the suffering of his friends and fellow workers – choking to death surrounded by acrid smoke and fire – Asher says the miners have no choice but to go back underground once the mine in Soma reopens.

“[My brother-in-law] will have to go back to the mine, because they need the money. He has two years left until retirement,” he explains outside a morgue in the neighbouring town of Kirkagaç, where bodies are being prepared for burial.

Meanwhile, at the hospital in Soma, where the few dozen survivors were taken for treatment, signs of the harsh realities of life as a miner are abundant. Engraved on the outer wall of the hospital are the haunting words: “For a handful of coal, people give their whole lives”, next to a symbol depicting two intersecting pickaxes.

Turkey has been plunged into grief, but there is also a sense of swelling anger, with locals complaining of poor working conditions and haphazard practices at the mine.

The highest paid among the Soma miners receives just $600 (R6 184) a month – hardly enough to provide for a family. Many have high levels of debt, and struggle to pay rent, electricity bills and school fees.

“Mining is the only job in the area. There is nothing else,” says Cenar Karamfil, a retired miner who now works as an electrician in Istanbul. He says the tough conditions at Soma are unbearable. “It’s so hot, so sweaty, you can hardly breath down there. But the people will go back down. They need the work. They have debts to pay,” he says, welling with emotion.

A shop owner standing nearby is desperate for news of his best friend’s father. There is a lingering sense of hope that he may have survived. “No one has given us any news yet. We are waiting.” – Sapa-dpa