It’s sometime in the afternoon of February 7th, a day after the earthquake that shook Turkey and Syria. I am scrolling through my social media feed and all I see are very specific pleas for help: “So and so building on so and so street has collapsed and there is no one on-site for rescue. Please spread this message.” These messages are occasionally interrupted with blips from acquaintances from the Western world who are complaining about inconveniences caused by the sanctions against Russia. Suppressing my heartbreak with tremendous effort I sign off and put my phone aside. Then I bump into my neighbours at the supermarket and we repeat the questions that have become old habits since last morning: “Are you alright? Are your loved ones safe?”
I come back home and halfway through unpacking the groceries I get messages from friends asking me if I am safe, or replies from people I had asked the same question to. I sit on the nearest chair with the same thousand-yard stare I have been wearing since morning and glance and pull out my phone once more while glancing at my piling chores. For no reason at all I check the neighbourhood WhatsApp group. The one I had muted over a year ago, after one too many unsolicited late-night tirade about how prune juice is more effective at combating COVID than vaccination. People from every conceivable hue in Turkey’s socio-political spectrum are engaged in a tremendous logistical effort to get basic necessities to the affected areas. People who only a week ago were at each others’ throats over how the neighbourhoods’ stray animals should be treated or how immigration needs to be managed are now talking about sharing long drives across the Anatolian plateau to help out survivors in any way they can.
As the initial shock wore off, public attention started to turn toward the deficit of public accountability. Why were the government rescue teams so late in arriving? Why were so many buildings still so vulnerable to earthquakes despite the memory of similar disasters in living memory? The answers that came made the government uneasy. In 1999 after the Istanbul earthquake devastated entire neighbourhoods, a new tax on communication services had been issued for the specific purpose of preparing for an earthquake. Where was that money spent?
In March of 2018, a piece of legislation commonly known as “Construction Amnesty” was passed by the AKP-majority parliament. This was a legal measure that for a fee, granted amnesty to unlicensed and illegal constructions that were built before January 1, 2018. According to the figures provided by the Turkish Ministry of the Environment ten million applications were made between May and November 2018 to legalise buildings that were built without compliance with safety regulations. This legislation was passed not long after the 2017 constitutional referendum that changed Turkey’s political system from parliamentary to presidential and just four months before the June 2018 Presidential election which promoted Erdoğan from prime minister to president. A cynical person who does not fear being persecuted for expressing opinions critical of Erdoğan could argue that the subpar constructions which were primed to fall into pieces were the cost we had had to pay for the president’s pre-election popularity boost.
Then there is the government’s war against civil society. When Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) failed to respond adequately to the situation, civil organisations rose to the occasion to fill in the countless gaps. The most visible of these organisations is AHBAP, founded by musician and philanthropist Haluk Levent. Word started to travel through the grapevine that NGOs like AHBAP were reaching survivors faster than AFAD or the Turkish Red Crescent. Within a few days, it became almost common knowledge to direct everyone seeking to make donations to AHBAP’s website.
Soon the government and its supporters started a smearing campaign against both Levent and his organisation. Devlet Bahçeli the leader of MHP the far-right nationalist party (whose first name literally means “State” in Turkish) which is providing crucial parliamentary support to Erdoğan’s minority AKP government, wasted no time to get on the offensive. Bahçeli has been intensifying his rhetoric since MHP has been haemorrhaging supporters for quite some time. Especially so following the party’s suspected involvement in the assassination of a rival nationalist leader in broad daylight just two months ago. In a speech barely a week after the earthquake, Bahçeli referred to aid organisations as “vultures” while their members were actively operating on the field to provide relief. Shortly after, the minister of interior Süleyman Soylu followed up with threats of his own by declaring: “if anyone tries to compete with the state in this regard, we will do what is necessary.”
The climate of going after experts and NGOs goes back to the arrest of civil society leader and businessperson Osman Kavala in 2017 for accusations of trying to overthrow the government through his alleged involvement with the 2013 Gezi protests. This was followed by the arrest of Mücella Yapıcı, the secretary general of the Istanbul branch of the Chamber of Architects and Engineers in 2021 for the same reason. The Erdoğan government which is leaning heavily on mega-construction projects to maintain its popularity has been in open warfare with the organisation which has been critical of projects like the construction of a third bridge across the Bosphorus, the new Istanbul airport and a rather fantastical project called Kanal Istanbul which aims to build an artificial canal connecting the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, parallel to the existing Bosphorus Strait. Each time the government is besieged by technical criticism of its oversized construction projects they have responded by accusing the experts of being traitors who are determined to prevent the country from developing.
In a climate where experts have almost become afraid of voicing their concerns, Erdoğan has insulted unnamed critics of the government’s response to the earthquake by calling them “depraved, degenerate and vile.” Previously such accusations would have been cheered on by his supporters, but the reports from the earthquake victims make the government’s ineffectiveness so resoundingly clear that these latest attempts don’t amount to much more than ineffective political manoeuvring. The only expert opinion that is officially sanctioned by the government amidst all the destruction has been from the Directorate of Religious Affairs. A controversial government agency directly connected to the president’s office and funded by public taxpayers’ money to promote a particular interpretation of Sunni Islam. Following the earthquake, the agency issued a statement claiming that there is no obstacle for someone to marry their adopted child, causing outrage among members of the public.
The governing parties were not the only ones trying to spin the public agenda in their favour. Ümit Özdağ, the leader of the newly founded extreme nationalist Victory Party, used the disaster to throw false accusations regarding Syrian looters while rescue operations were still ongoing. The public response to these claims was one of revulsion. A viral video on social media showed a Turkish rescue worker telling Özdağ that his provocations were an unwelcome distraction from the relief effort. Public perception towards refugees appears to have softened, at least momentarily.
In spite of government failures or perhaps because of them, the public has reacted to the situation with correct priorities. Like my neighbours who have buried their hatchets to rush to the disaster zone, countless mutual aid initiatives have been formed by ordinary citizens who have carried tents, clothes and hygiene products to the earthquake-hit areas. Many who drove to carry supplies have returned with families who lost their homes and ferried them to their relatives’ houses in other cities. There are still questions about what awaits the earthquake victims and what will be done to avoid the repetition of this catastrophe. With elections coming up around the bend, these questions will be of crucial importance.
Efe Levent is an Istanbul-based writer and founder of the publishing platform Mangal Media.
Image: Voice of America