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8 February 2023

After the earthquake, the rage in Turkey is greater than the pain

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has undermined the country’s response.

By Ece Temelkuran

The two earthquakes that hit Turkey’s south-east region on Monday morning (6 February) were only one part of an unfolding tragedy. By any measure the earthquake was a disaster, and would have devastated any country. Yet the people of Turkey are torn between the pain caused by a natural disaster and their rightful anger at the shamelessness of a corrupt regime. The growing death toll, the incredible damage and the astonishing lack of aid cannot be explained by the scale of the disaster alone. The earthquake is a tragedy; but the lack of disaster preparation, the non-existent crisis plans and the government’s callous neglect is a crime.

During his 20-year rule, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been warned countless times by seismologists and engineers of the poor construction standards of many Turkish buildings. In return, they were silenced by Turkey’s mainstream media. And here we are today: aid cannot reach devastated cities because roads and airports, many built by companies that have no merit other than being Erdoğan supporters, are destroyed.

The entire country, except for the regime’s most devout supporters, is asking what happened to all the earthquake tax money they’d been paying to the state since the devastating 1999 earthquake. (Some social media users reply to the question only by posting the gigantic palace Erdoğan built for himself.) And unlike the 1999 disaster, there is no mainstream media that can tell this story today after decades of eroded press freedoms. Two Turkish journalists are already being investigated for daring to criticise the regime’s post-quake response.  

The death toll has reached 8,500 in Turkey alone (while another 2,500 are dead in Syria). Social media is full of cries for help, desperate messages typed out from underneath the debris, sharing their addresses and phone numbers, begging to be pulled out. After a few hours, they go silent, presumably dead. One woman, who spent a night under the rubble, in the early morning posted: “My baby just froze to death.” After 24 hours, there are still cities that aid cannot reach. The first six hours are critical; the earthquake in 1999 left 17,000 dead and more than 40,000 injured.

Many desperate pleas on social media come from Hatay, a province on the Syrian border. It is known to be dissident, not loyal to the regime. Some believe the lack of aid to the town is political retaliation. In countries that haven’t experienced authoritarianism as Turkey has, it is hard to comprehend the level of hostility such a government would feel towards its people for that to be so. But this is not unimaginable for Turkey. That is why the mayors and politicians of opposition parties are now helping each other rather than waiting for state organisations.

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The lack of trust in central government runs so deep that those who want to donate money are turning to civilian organisations rather than official ones. That is why Ahbap (or Mate Association), a collective founded by the rock star Haluk Levent, appears to be the most effective way of assisting. Since the earthquake, Ahbap has been coordinating help and responding to cries for rescue. Turkish coders have created apps that list rescue requests to help civilian organisations. Citizens bring food and other supplies directly to charities. People tell each other the same line: “We don’t have a state. What we have is us.”

One might think nothing could be more painful than a disaster like this. But Turkish people know that it is more painful to witness the failure and corruption of the state in the nation’s darkest hour. In a country where an earthquake is a perennial danger, the budget of the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency, earmarked for situations like this, is about 14 times smaller than the Directorate of Religious Affairs’s budget. Yet, rather than acknowledging this failure, on the day of the earthquake the head of the religious directorate tweeted that a death prayer (sela) was to be sung from all the mosques in the country – when people were still buried under the rubble, alive but desperate for help. In response, one Twitter user wrote: “You’ll go down in history as the government that made the people listen to their own death prayer when they were fighting for their lives.”

More painful than a huge natural disaster is the knowledge that their words are true. Our only hope is that in the wake of this tragedy, the evil we are witnessing will also be buried in the debris. 

Ece Temelkuran is the author of “How To Lose a Country”. Her most recent work is “Together: A Manifesto Against the Heartless World”. 

[See also: The war in Ukraine will go on for years – and so will its consequences for Britain]

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