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September 12, 2010, Sunday

A trip of compassion in the Indus Valley

I don’t know if it’s because the Indus Valley was submerged under water or not, but it seemed like it was endless to me. This is the first time I am seeing farmland as vast as this stretch along an endless horizon. The entire distance visible to the eye is adorned with the delicate shadow of palm trees.
But those shadows have been sinking into the waters over the last three weeks. That is because the rainwater the Indus River carries has turned the Punjab plain into an inland sea.

In that inland sea are vaguely visible roads and coincidentally remaining desolate homes and villages on the small islands. I am imaging the images news agencies have sent out while flying over the region in a helicopter and the numbers, the close to 20 million people waiting for help, the women at the brink of death, the young girls and boys with thin necks. It’s a little comforting to know that they are not still there, under threat. But the danger is not completely gone. Millions of people who’ve lost their lands are waiting for the world’s compassion in the shelters they’ve taken refuge in.

So far only a few of the promises that have been made about aid have been kept. But even if promises were fulfilled, the current government’s ineptitude has left many people feeling skeptical. Some people have expressed concern that aid sent to Pakistan would benefit al-Qaeda. But Pakistani Foreign Affairs Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi has stated that the lack of foreign aid would actually make al-Qaeda stronger. Pakistan’s other problem continued even during the three days that we were there. An explosion in Lahore left 31 Shiites dead. The continuous internal strife in the country appears so hopeless that there isn’t the slightest sign of democracy on the horizon.

The source of Emine Erdoğan’s compassion

It’s a known fact that major disasters shake oppressive and pro-status quo administrations. My hope is that by becoming dependent on foreign aid the isolated pro-status quo Pakistani regime will be opened up to scrutiny. A member of the press whom I spoke to there mentioned the stereotypes that have been broken by foreign relief teams that came after the flood disaster. Apparently seeing blond and blue-eyed Westerners whom conservative groups in Pakistan thought were “devils” until now struggle tooth and nail to provide relief has helped them to realize that they aren’t bad people. In every good there is evil; in every evil there is good!

I visited disaster victims gathered from the Indus Valley at the Sukkur camp. The incredibly dedicated medical team from Turkey is providing treatment in the field hospital located in a camp that houses close to 2,000 people. The temperature is 40 degrees Celsius in the camp. With humidity, it reaches up to 50-55 degrees. The unbearable humidity that makes it difficult to breathe is a serious threat to especially children and pregnant women. Most people have injuries on their faces. It is said that there are thousands of children suffering from mosquito and snakebites. The sanitary supplies and food relief are not enough. I try to speak with the Sindhi children at the camp. Not knowing a single word that would help me to learn their name, I look into their dark, black eyes. The sound of children’s laughter from the camp where the beloved Amber Zaman was putting a smile on the children’s faces with her affection gave me a sense of relief like a flock of birds flying away.

The care and attention shown by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s wife, Emine Erdoğan, who visited each camp where dozens of wounded, sick and elderly people had gathered, was admirable. Some people may think it was a symbolic visit. But there were serious challenges there that would have easily been exposed if the compassion was just for show. At times when many of us, from press members in the delegation to other participants, were having difficulty breathing because of the heat and humidity, Mrs. Erdoğan was showing sincere affection to every single victim. She asked all of them how they were doing and caressed their hair.

On the flight back, I wanted to speak with Mrs. Erdoğan privately partially because I was moved by what I saw. Even though I have never had any interest in the behind-the-scenes value of interviews with politicians I wanted to learn the source of her sincere compassion and unending kindness directly from her.

Following the visit to Brussels this past spring, I wrote that “the prime minister’s biggest luck was having a wife like Mrs. Erdoğan.” It was exciting to see if I was correct. She truly does have the affection and warmth that a woman from Anatolia should have. As well a wisdom acquired naturally. In brief, she is a lot like a mother. Her hands, touching talks, and tears are all too real.

Another facet of the picture I saw in Pakistan was this: Mrs. Erdoğan began her speech at the ceremony saying “When my husband and I came to Pakistan last year.” She could very well have said, “When the prime minister and I.” I think this style that she developed naturally reflects her strength and awareness of equality.

Caroline Koç, an important name in Turkish high society, was also a part of the Pakistan trip.

The wife of a leader of a party known to have conservative values espouses the values that Turkey has created and carries them to different parts of the world. To me this seems like a critical sociological case. For obvious reasons, it is not easy for conservative and secular values to unite in Turkey. For now this union takes place abroad, just like on the Brussels trip. But it’s inevitable for the cooperation achieved abroad to manifest its effect inside the country.

After all, normalization has already started. How much longer can women who’ve made peace with Mrs. Erdoğan’s headscarf continue to militantly defend the headscarf ban? The ice is breaking. What’s nice is that this rapprochement is happening with natural dynamics.

Koç’s participation in the Pakistan trip, which is a trip of compassion, is like the crux of many problems in Turkey. In an Eastern society like ours that is trying to become Western, the reconciliation of values and classes depends on reconciliation between women. First, women need to make peace. First, women need to speak out. Only then will normalization be achieved. Only then will a great speech have impact.

Not too long ago, a businessman from Diyarbakır who was talking about the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) said: “Women and youth are the most militant ones. They are the ones who escalate severity.” In response, I had said: “Just like the women in İzmir. Just like blond women who have the nerve to pull the headscarf off of women wearing it.” This is the case in every society. Women are inclined to become radical because their emotional world is bigger. But womanhood has another side to it as well. When they act with common sense and sensitivity their womanhood turns into an incredible transformative power. This is the great strength of motherhood and womanhood. It is for this reason that the reconciliation of values between women will reveal society’s real strength.

This is how we need to interpret the dialogue presented first in Brussels and then in Pakistan.

The ability of secular women to learn from and contribute to conservative values is Turkey’s main strength. The ability of lifestyles and rights won starting from the Ottoman Empire to learn how to coexist without surrendering to each other is a critical case.

Secularists and conservatives can continue to bicker on the political scenes because it is these kinds of ties that establish social peace. Not only does Koç have no problem with the values Mrs. Erdoğan represents, but she is taking them to different parts of the world, portraying a powerful womanhood.

A similar power exists in just about every field. Turkey is immersed in international activities that far exceed what it has done throughout the history of the republic. Anywhere you go you come across Turkish businessmen, entrepreneurs, nongovernmental organizations, politicians and members of the media. In the past, when a disaster happened in another part of the world, our only news source was Western agencies. Today, reporters from Turkey are sending news to the world. One of these people is TRT Türk’s correspondent Levent Öztürk. He sent tragic images from the area starting from the first day the flood started. Not just members from the media but the number of people from other fields who go to remote parts of the world to provide relief, teams that carry out constructive work and entrepreneurs is rapidly increasing. I had felt the same way when I saw Turkish Cooperation and Development Agency’s (TİKA) projects in Afghanistan.

‘We didn’t come for the disaster, we were already here’

The same kind of effort is being shown in Pakistan. After bringing aid to the region following the earthquake in 2005, the Turkish Red Crescent (Kızılay) set up a permanent unit. “We didn’t come here for the disaster. We were already here,” said Chairman Tekin Küçakli, without trying to hide his pride about it.

Indeed, aside from Turkey’s known image, Turkey is a country that is strengthening its relations with the outside world. It is not enough to just have a strong economy or a high national income per capita to be able to help others. You also have to have a confident spirit that is not afraid of developing relationships. Mehmet Ersoy, the president of the recently established Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD), which is designed to provide immediate relief in 60 countries, says, “We’ve developed into a country that is respected in international relief meetings.”

When you observe all of these improvements, you realize that the politics inside the country is far behind what’s happening outside. With unprecedented momentum Turkey is heading from one country to the next and presenting itself as a powerful country that helps poor people, disaster victims and groups in conflict. And it is doing all this without neglecting modern values. A wonderful example of this was the bags featuring the logo of the Secretariat General for European Union Affairs (ABGS) that accompanied us during our tour in Pakistan. Plastic boots and raincoats were not the only thing in the blue bags prepared by ABGS under the leadership of State Minister for EU Affairs Egemen Bağış.

I think the image of Europe delivered to Pakistan by way of Turkey is a significant new political situation. In helping Pakistan, Turkey is not relying solely on the compassion that is heightened during Ramadan as Mrs. Erdoğan hinted. It is also bringing with it a combination of values including those represented by Koç and the ABGS logo, the well-equipped medical teams of the Health Ministry and Kızılay’s works.

My only small criticism is that help is voluntary, and unless it is crowned with humility it turns into a show. The aid that has been provided is very valuable and necessary, but making desperate children and elderly people you help hold the Turkish flag in their hands seems like an attitude that is far from humility to me. With efforts being underlined this much, I’m not sure what impression the aid will leave on people.

What difference will there be between you and the old colonialists if you seek more when you’ve won so many people’s hearts?

*Bejan Matur is a poet.
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