How politics has magnified the devastation caused by the Turkey-Syria earthquake

Turkey earthquake which hit Syria too
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Two weeks have passed since a 7.8-magnitude earthquake devastated south-eastern Turkey and northern Syria. Latest figures estimate that 41,020 citizens have died in south-east Turkey alone. Meanwhile, according to the United Nations, 8.8 million people have been affected in Syria and more than 5,800 have been killed.

Many people remain under the rubble. This is because in president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s fascistic Turkey, this earthquake is highly political. A vast number of areas affected in the south-east of Turkey are Kurdish. And many regions have seen very little state help with rescue operations.

Turkey’s Kurdish population has been repressed since the establishment of the Turkish state in 1923. Authorities have murdered or disappeared thousands of Kurdish people over the decades. They’ve also burned down or decimated their villages and imprisoned many more thousands.

The Canary has previously reported on how critics of the Turkish government have placed responsibility for the number of earthquake deaths on Erdoğan. They have also criticised his government for both its handling of the rescue operation itself and the way it has allowed the construction of buildings that, because of their location, were susceptible to earthquakes. Since 1999, Turkey has imposed an earthquake tax on homeowners. It has pocketed billions of dollars which, seemingly, it hasn’t put to use at all.

The province of Hatay, with its majority-Arab population in a majority-Turkish country, was close to the epicentre of the earthquake. The state has neglected Hatay’s residents, too. In particular, those who live in the majority-Alevi Armutlu district said that they had been left to their own fate. On top of this, Erdoğan’s AKP government had previously revoked its decision to list six neighbourhoods of Hatay’s İskenderun district as ‘disaster risk areas‘. It had listed them in 2013, but removed them again in early 2022.

Turkey: government ends rescue operations

On Sunday 19 February, Turkey announced that rescue efforts had ended in all but two provinces: Kahramanmaras and Hatay. Agence France Presse (AFP) reported that in Antakya, authorities had banned people from entering their homes since the earthquake struck. They’re now telling residents to empty their houses before the buildings are demolished. But people are calling for their loved ones’ bodies to be recovered first.

In the city of Adıyaman alone, more than 200 buildings have collapsed and 11,000 people have lost their lives. JINHA women’s news agency reported that due to late search and rescue efforts, dead people – who could potentially have been found alive – are being brought out from the rubble. JINHA said:

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Some buildings have been largely destroyed by the earthquakes; however, no measures have been taken for these buildings and they may collapse at any moment. These buildings pose a threat to the people living in the city. In order to prevent more people from dying, urgent measures must be taken for these buildings.

Meanwhile, in the city of Elbistan, citizens said that the state has largely forgotten them. It left survivors homeless, in freezing conditions, with no electricity or drinking water. A JINHA journalist interviewed a woman in the town:

The woman told us that no rescue team came to their district and many people froze to death under debris. “Our building also collapsed but no one was in it… Aids arrived here very late. No rescue team has come here. I lost 30 relatives. If rescue teams came earlier, many people would be alive now. What we experienced was a cataclysm.”

Residents said what gave them hope was the solidarity they experienced from people outside the area, who travelled from other regions to help them with rescue operations.

Blocking Twitter and arresting social media users

Immediately after the earthquake, Turkey blocked Twitter, which was essential to both survivors trapped under the rubble and those involved in the rescue operation. A government official said at the time:

This had to be done because in some accounts there were untrue claims, slander, insults and posts with fraudulent purposes.

But in Erdoğan’s Turkey, those who criticise the president, his AKP government, or its policies, can – and usually will – be investigated and arrested. This is particularly true if you happen to be Kurdish. The Canary has previously reported that:

Everyone is charged with “membership of a terrorist organisation”. But these are not terrorists. These are lawyers, journalists, MPs, co-op members, and human rights activists. Their crime is being Kurdish and supporting radical democracy in the face of president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s fascistic regime.

Turkey is also known as the world’s largest prison for journalists. So it’s unsurprising that while people are still under the rubble, the Turkish state is busy arresting even more people – this time for spreading supposed disinformation on social media. On 20 February, Turkey’s General Directorate of Security announced that it was investigating hundreds of people and had made a number of arrests. JINHA reported:

The General Directorate of Security said in the statement that it had identified 775 people accused of making provocative posts, and legal proceedings had been initiated against 441, “The chief prosecutor had ordered the arrest of 24 of the 129 detained people.”

Controversial earthquake aid

It’s also unsurprising that the US has used the opportunity to announce that it is giving a new $100m aid package to Turkey, its NATO ally. US secretary of state Antony Blinken is currently on a visit to Turkey. He is expected to talk about military deals – namely, the fact that fascistic Turkey wants to buy F16 fighter jets off the US.

But to those directly affected on the ground in Turkey and in Syria, it’s blatantly clear that money being donated for earthquake relief isn’t reaching them. The Canary recently reported on how areas of Syria aren’t getting aid. In Afrin, which is occupied by Turkey, the situation is especially dire. The Canary‘s Tom Anderson wrote:

The catastrophic impacts of the earthquake for people in Afrin will certainly be made worse by the effects of the five year long occupation of the region by the Turkish state backed Syrian National Army (SNA).

Meanwhile, Fikret Ebdelo, an official in Shahba canton in Aleppo, has stated that:

In Afrin, many people have been in rubble for more than a week and no humanitarian aid is allowed to be sent to the city. The Turkish state did not allow people to send humanitarian aid to the earthquake victims. It rejected the humanitarian aid sent by the Autonomous Administration [of Rojava] and did not allow the people to receive this humanitarian aid on time.

Ebdelo went on to say that the Syrian government has also blocked aid to the Shahba region. The area hosts thousands of people who have been displaced from Afrin due to the Turkish occupation. She said:

Shahba is also badly affected by the earthquake; many people have lost their lives and many houses have collapsed. Sovereign states always develop their policies according to their own interests. Since the first day of the earthquake, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria [Rojava] has been sending humanitarian aid and relief supplies to the Shahba canton affected by the earthquake; however, the Syrian government has been blocking the transfer of this aid.

Make your donations to Turkey and Syria count

Erdoğan will, no doubt, be using the earthquake to convince his country that he’s capable of uniting his nation. He will also use the disaster to improve his strained relations with his NATO allies. But for citizens who have been displaced, or whose loved ones have perished under buildings, this event is yet another example of just how dangerous Erdoğan and his government really are.

Of course, money is still desperately needed to help with the rescue operations in the region. Comrades are asking that you think carefully before donating to those mainstream organisations that are appealing for your cash. Instead, they ask you to donate to Heyva Sor – the Kurdish Red Crescent – which has spent years on the frontline of the Syrian civil war. You can donate here.

Featured image via JINHA women’s news agency

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