Turkey’s Earthquake Response Is as Political as the Conditions That Increased The Devastation

When the first earthquake, 7.8 in magnitude, struck just outside Gaziantep on Monday morning, Gürkan Arpaci considered himself lucky. About eighty miles away, in Elbistan, the small Turkish town where Arpaci was born and lives, only three or four buildings had collapsed and there didn’t seem to be too many casualties. Almost everyone he knew appeared on the street in the freezing pre-dawn hour, wondering what to do next. Arpaci’s family has two cars, one belonging to him and one to his parents, and they piled in as many neighbors as possible, cranked up the heat, and drove to a nearby field, where they could make phone calls, share some food, and get some sleep—away from the falling debris. When his boss at the local power plant, where Arpaci works as a mechanical engineer, asked him to come in for his morning shift, he obliged, taking the company bus along with a handful of his colleagues, most of them silent in fear and exhaustion. At least the rumble of the bus hid the frequent aftershocks, so he didn’t have to pretend that they didn’t scare him.

At 1:30 P.M., Arpaci, who is thirty, was immersed in his work when the second quake—nearly as strong as the first—hit. This time, Elbistan was close to the epicenter. “It was like something huge was knocking on the walls and doors,” he told me. Workers raced outside to call their families. “My mother was safe, she hadn’t left the car,” Arpaci said. His sister, who was staying in a nearby village, was also fine. Again, he felt lucky. Around him, people were in anguish, unable to reach loved ones, or they had reached them after they were trapped under rubble, or worse. “People were screaming ‘Elbistan is toppled now,’ ” he said. “ ‘There is no more Elbistan.’ ” Arpaci ran out of the power plant, not waiting for the company bus to take him back to his family.

The earthquakes in Turkey and Syria were, like most earthquakes, both utterly shocking and entirely predictable. The region lies on two major faults, and Turkey’s own history is riddled with earthquakes, dating back to the earliest recorded history of the country—before Christianity, before Islam, before radars and seismology and certainly before the polarizing ascent of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (A.K.P.). I lived in Istanbul between 2011 and 2015, and the threat, and memory, of earthquakes loomed heavily. Metal rods hammered between centuries-old stones in Istanbul’s historic core are evidence of early attempts at earthquake preparation. Images of the city after a series of earthquakes starting in 553, with the iconic dome of the Hagia Sophia collapsed like a deflated balloon, are commonly depicted on postcards. Brightly colored educational vans containing replicas of a child’s bedroom—the furniture and knickknacks secured according to government guidelines—routinely circle Turkish cities, to demonstrate how to prepare.

Even with all this history, however, this week’s earthquakes were likely the largest natural disaster the country has ever faced, hitting ten major cities in southern Turkey, as well as parts of northern Syria, which had already been extensively damaged by war and is mostly controlled by rebels. For nearly three days, aid and rescue from the Turkish government stalled, and local communities were largely left to fend for themselves.

Arpaci’s father is a mukhtar, an elected community leader, and soon after the second quake, he and Arpaci returned to the center of Elbistan to see what they could do. Their own home had been destroyed. While his father called every government connection he knew, asking for help from the AFAD, the government’s disaster-management agency, Arpaci helped other survivors dig through the ruins. They listened for voices in the rubble; dug with their hands, small tools, sticks, broken furniture, anything they could; struggled to move heavy concrete blocks without heavy machinery, and to lift whole rooms’ worth of furniture, framed photos, toys. “I think I’ll hear one of these voices for the rest of my life,” Arpaci told me. “He said over and over, ‘I am here, don’t leave me, I’m here, I’m here.’ But we had to leave him.” At night, Arpaci and his parents returned to the field to sleep in their cars. Others took piles of wood usually reserved for a local breadmaker’s oven and made bonfires for heat.

Eventually, after receiving limited responses, Arpaci’s father stopped calling his contacts in the central government. The two men instead started reaching out to friends in other cities, connections in the diaspora—the Arpacis are Kurdish Alevi, a minority within a minority—and the offices of opposition parties in Istanbul or in nearby cities. Their friends posted on social media, including Twitter, until the government appeared to temporarily restrict access to the platform. (Many people assumed that this was because posts made the A.K.P. look bad, but government officials claim the disruption was a technical issue.) The earthquake zone—an enormous swath of land comprising ten provinces that are wildly diverse ethnically, religiously, culturally, and politically—is home to many communities like the Kurdish Alevis, who, having long felt isolated from and ignored by the A.K.P., have created alternative communities of support. Those first few days, Arpaci told me, “ninety-five per cent of the aid came directly from the people—the good people, the volunteers.” Even after AFAD trucks began to arrive in Elbistan, the informal measures continued. “It’s our community, it’s our neighbors,” he said. “People trust each other, people help each other.”

In 2011, when Rola Bitar and her family left Idlib, in Syria, for Turkey, she didn’t think to take important documents or family heirlooms. “We said, ‘Let’s go just to get a rest from the war,’ ” she told me. “Ten days turned into ten years.” Bitar is from an educated, comfortable family, and she made a life for herself in Turkey, graduating from university with a degree in journalism and eventually marrying a Syrian man who had initially immigrated to Germany. They had taken their honeymoon in Oman, and were on a bus headed from the airport to home, in Gaziantep, when the first earthquake hit. “I felt the same fear I had in Syria,” she told me. “Everyone was on the street. I was terrified to enter my own building, where I used to feel so safe.” She raced inside to retrieve her papers—she had recently become a Turkish citizen—abandoned the bags full of gifts from Oman, and ran back to the street, amazed by the destruction. “We’ve had eleven years of war in Syria,” she said. “But what happened in eleven years there happened in forty seconds here.”

Turkey is home to almost four million Syrian refugees, and the vast majority of them live where the earthquakes hit, with many living in Gaziantep. Now they flooded the streets in panic. “It was an emergency, the police were yelling at people to flee their houses, to leave the streets, and find open spaces or shelters,” Bitar told me. Bitar, who speaks Turkish and Arabic, began translating for her husband, who does not speak Turkish, and then for crowds of Arabic speakers who gravitated toward her.

Partly because of the significant Syrian population, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has a presence in the area; when the earthquakes hit, U.N. workers began distributing tents and food normally reserved for refugees. “It’s not possible to see who’s who,” Selin Unal, a U.N.H.C.R. spokesperson in Turkey, told me. “And from the Turkish-government side, there’s no difference when it comes to assisting them.” But, in the chaos, many refugees were confused about where to go to find aid or shelter. Yazan Al Ahmad, who is from southern Syria, had lived in Gaziantep for three years when the earthquake hit. His building was damaged, so he walked to a small field of tents but the camp was already full, and he left, defeated and a little angry. “Most of my neighbors are Turkish,” he said. His relationship with the Turks had never been contentious, but it wasn’t close, either. He preferred to spend his time with other Syrians. “They didn’t tell me where to go,” he said, of his neighbors.

For hours, Al Ahmad wandered between mosques, or joined any crowd he saw, searching for food. The only information he received from Turkish officials, he said, had to do with the threat of aftershocks. Before Tuesday morning, he hadn’t even been aware that his new home lay on a major fault. When the rumbling woke him, his wife, and their two young children, they wondered if they should jump from the balcony of their second-floor apartment. “I lived in war for ten years,” he said. “And this was worse.”

According to Bitar, when the AFAD joined the rescue efforts in Gaziantep and Antakya, a city close to the Turkish-Syrian border, the agency concentrated on rescuing people from the rubble. The greater Syrian community continued to serve the refugee communities and, as best they could with closed borders, people in Syria. “I know too many people in Syria who can’t reach their relatives here in Turkey,” Bitar told me. “And, on the other side, I know people who are alive in Antakya, but they don’t know anything about their relatives inside of Syria.”

“Northern Syria needs everything,” Zaki Al-Droubi, a Syrian journalist and politician living in Istanbul, told me. “Everyone is on their own.” On Thursday afternoon, Mohammed Al-Omar, a media activist in Idlib, estimated that there were more than two thousand dead and nearly five thousand injured in his city, and that hundreds of buildings had collapsed. “We can still hear some people under the rubble,” he told me. “But we have no way to get them.” Without proper medical equipment, they couldn’t treat those they were able to dig out, and, as in Turkey, freezing temperatures compounded the suffering. Al-Omar had seen no foreign aid, and certainly no aid from the Syrian state. All they had were groups of volunteers made up of “the civil-defense team, the military factions, university students. Everyone is trying to help each other.”

“The earthquake did not differentiate between the land of the Turkish Republic and the land of the Syrian Arab Republic. It claimed lives on both sides of the border,” Al-Droubi said. “If Turkey, with its greatness and strength, could not bear the burden of the earthquake on its own, then how can northern Syria, which is subjected to almost daily bombings?”

Al Ahmad put the situation of Syrian survivors another way. “The regime of Bashar al-Assad kills people,” he said. “They are happy with what has happened.”

Even before Erdoğan’s Presidency, Turkey’s southeast was a stronghold of anti-government activism and politics. The Kurdish movement was born in Diyarbakir, a city that is not only the cultural and political heart of Kurdish Turkey but the heart of the movement to declare an independent greater Kurdistan. Because of that movement, and the violence it has engendered, Kurds in Turkey have been oppressed by a succession of Turkish leaders. Erdoğan, who used to present himself as a supporter of peace, has in recent years proved himself to be among the most oppressive of these leaders. Turkish jails are filled with Kurdish politicians, activists, journalists, and academics, along with perceived sympathizers with the Kurdish movement. Kurdish mayors, long a force in national politics, have been removed and replaced by “trustees” loyal to the A.K.P. By the time the earthquake hit Diyarbakir, the city had been so beleaguered for so long that the destruction—vast, yet mild compared with other affected areas—blended into the debris left by fighting between protesters and police. The distrust of the A.K.P. is so strong in Diyarbakir that the earthquake was met by what was arguably the swiftest and most organized civilian response.

When I reached Garo Paylan by phone, he was in Diyarbakir, visiting demolished buildings. Paylan is a member of the People’s Democratic Party (H.D.P.), a Kurdish political party whose victory in the 2015 Turkish parliamentary elections sparked a backlash against Kurds that has put most of H.D.P.’s most prominent voices in prison on terrorism charges that independent observers called absurd. In a deeply polarized country, H.D.P.’s politics of inclusion—its platform emphasizes the rights of women, the L.G.B.T.Q. community, ethnic minorities, and workers—continue to appeal to left-leaning citizens, even as the party operates under extreme restrictions.

Paylan, a Turk of Armenian descent, estimated that thirty buildings in Diyarbakir had been destroyed or damaged beyond repair; many others were likely unsafe for people to return to. Countries, like Chile and Japan, that are situated in fault zones often have strict engineering standards, but the A.K.P. has followed a policy of encouraging cheap mass-housing projects, often favoring firms with ties to the party. This has long been a subject of opposition political parties, but on the day I spoke to Paylan it was either too late or too early to dwell on that, or on the impact the earthquake might have on Turkey’s national elections, scheduled for May, in which Erdoğan is seeking reëlection. Rescue efforts were still under way, and a large number of Diyarbakir’s two million residents needed emergency aid. “We have a great tradition of solidarity,” Paylan told me. “Of these ten cities, Diyarbakir is in the best position to take care of itself.”

“For forty years Diyarbakir has faced the worst repression in Turkey,” he went on. “But if the repression is big, the struggle for rights is big as well. That’s why Diyarbakir is so strong. That’s why we can recover in forty-eight hours.” Many Kurds assumed that Erdoğan’s government would not send aid to them in any case—in 2012, after an earthquake in the Kurdish city of Van, the government had blocked some aid. In Diyarbakir, this was politics as usual. “Erdoğan’s story is all about power,” Paylan told me. “With any problem, he always wants to show himself as a powerful leader. I don’t think he’s that powerful. But this”—millions of people left homeless, looming medical disasters, a death toll approaching twenty thousand, and aftershocks that continue to jolt people back into their deepest fear—“this is definitely beyond his power.” ♦

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