It came in the dead of night, an earthquake of 7.8 magnitude that hit southeastern Turkey and northern Syria. Its epicentre was close to Gaziantep — Unesco Creative City of Gastronomy, famous for its diverse cuisine and sweet pistachio pastries, home to the world’s largest mosaic museum with a mesmerising collection from the ancient settlement of Zeugma. The shaking was so powerful that it was caught by seismometers all over the world. By the time it was over, it had flattened whole apartment blocks, ripped up roads and trapped thousands of people under piles of concrete.
Nine hours later, a second potent earthquake hit the same region, its epicentre near the city of Kahramanmaraş. At 7.5 magnitude, it was almost as traumatic as the first one. In freezing winter conditions, people were left homeless and helpless, with no food and no water. Even the ones who were pulled from under the rubble in the early hours of the tragedy were faced with the possibility of freezing to death. This was a natural disaster of vast proportions. But what made it so deadly and the suffering so immense was not nature itself. It was human-built systems of inequality and corruption.
I was in Istanbul on August 17 1999 when the İzmit earthquake of 7.6 magnitude struck. I will never forget waking up to find the entire building swaying like a raft in a storm, a deafening sound rising from under the ground as the walls moved, steadily caving in. Some 18,000 people died that night.
Afterwards, as we picked up the pieces from the physical and emotional rubble, major promises were made to the people. The authorities gave fiery speeches about how there would be stricter building regulations. It is true that regulations were tightened, but it was all on paper, never fully implemented. It was all empty words. Cracks were glossed over, fissures covered with “make-up”, and damaged buildings put back in use. Those who criticised were called “traitors”.
The sad truth is that an alarming number of buildings in my motherland are not up to code. Entire city blocks have been destroyed in this earthquake; for more profit and gain, personal favours and nepotism, lives were squandered. The government will now probably blame individual contractors, and many are directly responsible for the calamity, but the authorities cannot pass the buck so easily. Official permits were given where they should never have been granted. It was not only residential buildings that crumbled in what experts call “pancake collapse”, but also municipal buildings, including hospitals that had been opened with much fanfare.
Turkey has an amazing array of scientists and engineers, and many of them have been begging officials to pay attention to the impending danger, but their voices were never heard by those in power. Just the opposite: they have been accused of “fear-mongering”.
The ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) periodically granted “construction amnesties” to buildings that blatantly defied earthquake regulations. Up to 75,000 buildings were given such amnesties in the earthquake zone alone, according to Pelin Pınar Giritlioğlu, Istanbul head of the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects. Geologist Celâl Şengör rightly says that issuing such blanket amnesties in a country that is riven by faultlines is nothing short of a crime. It is painfully ironic that the government was about to pass yet another amnesty just a few days before the catastrophe struck. They have never learnt from the sorrows and mistakes of the past. They have never let go of their hubris. Greed and cronyism have been the dominant guidelines.
After the 1999 earthquake, the state imposed a tax whose proceeds were supposed to be used for the next emergency. But when asked about the money in 2020, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan bristled at spelling out how it had been spent: “We spent the [funds] on what was necessary,” he told reporters. There is no transparency, only systemic censorship and suppression of information.
There is a correlation between the lack of democracy in a country and the level of destruction left in the wake of natural disasters. In a functioning democracy, those in power can be held accountable, a system of checks and balances will control spending and the public will be informed of every step. Where there is no democracy there is bound to be more human suffering.
The state also failed to carry out swift, systemic emergency rescue efforts. In many parts of the disaster zone, people were left to their own devices, trying to save their loved ones with their bare hands, digging through rubble with whatever they could muster. Some of them could hear voices from under the ruins and experienced the immense pain and trauma of not being able to help their families and friends. A father sat for hours holding the hand of his dead daughter, only her arm showing through the concrete. For impossibly long hours no official help arrived in cities such as Hatay. People trapped under demolished buildings sent tweets giving their location, begging for help. It is mind-blowing that the next day access to Twitter was blocked, at a time when every minute was critical to save lives.
There is so much anger, so much sorrow. Whether we are in Turkey or across the diaspora, we oscillate between grief and rage. One minute we are crying uncontrollably, another minute burning with outrage, consumed by a sense of brokenness. The earthquake has shattered something in the collective psyche.
Meanwhile, Erdoğan does what he always does: attacks his critics and shuts down their voices. In the name of “national unity” we are expected to be quiet and docile, to shut our mouths and be thankful. Erdoğan acknowledges that there were “shortcomings” in the government’s response, but points the finger at the weather, adding that it was not possible to prepare for a disaster of this scale, which simply is not true. An earthquake of this magnitude would have left immense damage anywhere in the world, but not on such a horrific scale if the buildings were constructed up to code and the rescue efforts properly co-ordinated.
It is telling that many people in Turkey do not trust the government and its partisan, politicised institutions. The most trusted organisations for rescue efforts have been civil society-based initiatives, such as the AKUT Search and Rescue Association and, in particular, AHBAP, an NGO that has become a beacon of hope for countless people.
There have been rays of light amid the darkness. Turkish people will never forget the rescue teams rushing from all over the world to save lives. From Mexico to Spain to the UK to Hungary to Israel and Armenia and even war-torn Ukraine. Greece was one of the first to send help. Greek TV channels began their news bulletins with a song widely loved on both sides of the Aegean. I don’t know of anyone who could watch it without breaking down in tears. On a pair of gloves sent from Greece along with vital equipment there was a handwritten note in Greek and Turkish: “May you get well soon, komşu — neighbour.”
It is also important to note that the dire situation in Syria has not received enough attention in world media. In many areas access remains limited. These are regions that hold many refugees, areas that have already suffered from poverty, conflict and war. Both Turkey and Syria need urgent help. Let us also bear in mind that in times of disaster, women and children are affected disproportionately. We must create safe spaces for them, and especially for children who have lost their parents. As I am writing this piece, the death toll stands at more than 19,000 and the horrible truth is that the real number will be much higher.
There were miracles, too. The beautiful, wide-eyed children pulled from under the rubble, the man who after being saved hugged each and every one of his rescuers, the baby born under the ruins in a Kurdish area, her umbilical cord still attached to her deceased mother. There have been incredible moments of resilience.
In The Lord of the Flies, the writer William Golding emphasised that human beings are savage and selfish by nature, and in times of calamity this will become all the more apparent. But the response to this terrible earthquake has been quite the opposite — an immense wave of solidarity and empathy in the region and beyond. Human beings have acted more in line with Dutch historian Rutger Bregman’s book Humankind, proving themselves utterly capable of kindness and altruism.
And yet, the earthquake and its painful aftermath have also proved Golding right. His description of self-absorbed and self-serving human nature fits perfectly the state of politics and those who are in power in my motherland, Turkey.
Elif Shafak is an award-winning Turkish novelist based in London
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