Turkey deals with aftermath of magnitude 7.2 earthquake by Aydoğan Vatandaş*

October 31, 2011, Monday/ 17:17:00

In 1999 when a magnitude 7.6 earthquake hit northwestern Turkey, the Turkish government was shocked. Aid to Gölcük, the epicenter of that earthquake, was hardly even delivered. Thousands were injured and 17,000 were killed.

When the magnitude 7.2 earthquake struck Van, a province in eastern Turkey, last Sunday, the government was not left as bewildered as it had been before. More than 2,000 special rescue teams with a dozen sniffer dogs were immediately sent to Van to contribute to search-and-rescue and aid efforts.

Military units closed the roads so that rescue teams and aid could be brought into the city.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited the region right after the earthquake, announcing that all efforts would be made for the victims. “We are not going to leave people to their own devices in the winter cold,” he said.

A total of 11,274 tents and 25,000 blankets were transported to the earthquake area, 730 miles east of the Turkish capital of Ankara, within a few hours.

“We are grateful for the support coming in from everywhere in the country. This demonstrates the brotherhood of this country,” said Selahattin Demirtaş, leader of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP).

However, some sources in the region have also claimed that there are dozens of affected villages around the city of Van to which hardly any aid has been delivered.

The media have only focused on Van and Erciş, the two cities that were most badly damaged. Unfortunately, the media have not provided enough footage or news reports from the countryside. Many activists and citizen journalists have shared their views and observations through social media. This is the only way we have learned of developments in the countryside.

Social media also played an enormous role in motivating rescue and aid efforts following the earthquake. Turkish activists have organized campaigns and shared every detail of the goings on in the region through Facebook and Twitter.

However uniting, the Van earthquake also triggered some controversy in Turkey. The province of Van, the epicenter of the earthquake, has a large Kurdish population. Duygu Canbaş, an anchorwoman for HaberTürk TV news, was highly criticized for her statements about the earthquake. She said, “Even though the earthquake occurred in Van, we are all sad.”

Many in Turkey believe that her statement is an example of hate speech. However, Fatih Altaylı, the editor-in-chief of the HaberTürk newspaper, claims she was just misunderstood.

The Turkish people have been very impressed with the aid offers coming from all around the world. Even though relations between Turkey and Israel are currently strained due to the fallout of the Israeli raid of the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara aid flotilla that resulted in nine Turkish deaths last year, it was a breath of fresh air to find that Israel was one of the first countries to extend a hand to Turkey.

Unfortunately, Turkey initially declined these outside offers of help, and the Israeli government announced Turkey’s refusal to accept Israeli assistance. Some experts have questioned Turkey’s decision not to accept international offers of aid.

Turkish Deputy Premier Bülent Arınç said on Monday that while relations between the governments of Turkey and Israel are not at their best, Turkey would not reject Israel’s humanitarian assistance.

On Wednesday, Israel delivered aid to Turkey.

I think Turkey should not have declined outside offers of help even though they came from Israel and Armenia. Human lives are much more important than national pride or any political concerns.

Turkish Americans have also launched aid campaigns in the US. Helping Hands, a nonprofit humanitarian aid organization based in New Jersey, has organized aid campaigns all over the US. So far they have collected more than $40,000. The Raindrop Foundation, another organization that was established by Turkish Americans in Texas, has collected $50,000 for the victims of the Van earthquake.

* Aydoğan Vatandaş is an investigative reporter and correspondent for the Turkish Cihan news agency and Zaman in New York.