The Week in Turkish Politics, 16 November 2011

If Only Van Province Was in Libya, or in Saudi Arabia

Turkey’s Van province was shaken with a third earthquake on Monday, 14th of November, which turned the city center with a population of roughly 400 thousand into a ghost town. The human misery is very difficult to imagine, let alone to describe in words.  What compounds the suffering and makes it so hard for the rest of us to watch in agonizing silence is that most of it isn’t the result of earthquake, but  the neglect of a government that treats its people as subjects rather than citizens and discriminates among them.

Earthquakes are Acts of God, or as members of AKP would be fond of saying whenever the party fails to provide effective solutions to calamities “a result of fate”.  However, this isn’t exactly true in case ofTurkey.  Ninety-five percent of the country sits on active faultlines, with several tremors of  5+ on the Richter scale affecting major population centers annually. One would have thought that any democratic government’s first priority would be effective disaster management.

We have emphasized in our past articles that AKP has squandered over US$50 mn of  taxes that should have been earmarked for disaster relief on road building, has turned a benign eye to persistent  building and zoning code violations and failed to pass effective legislation to prosecute the culprits for selling structurally unsound apartments.  The reason is very simple. One of the major constituencies of AKP is the contracting and construction industry, whose profit margins would have suffered terribly, had AKP insisted on enforcing current building regulations or strengthened them.

The human misery in Van is partly the result of AKP’s callousness to peoples’ lives and the party’s very strange priorities.  However, first see what Hurriyet Daily News says about the disaster relief efforts, which are apparently disastrously inept:

“The consecutive 7.2- and 5.6-magnitude earthquakes have subjected Turkey to a major test in disaster management in the last month. With more than 640 people losing their lives and thousands migrating from the quake-hit southeastern city of Van, the earthquake has become the most damaging disaster Turkey has faced in the last 10 years. Yet, some civil defense experts and rescue workers say Turkey failed with flying colors.

“Civil defense is not just about rescuing people from the rubble. There needs to be a major disaster management plan that can be applied easily. However in our case, everything stays on paper,” Suat Özçağdaş, a psychologist who has been running support programs in disaster areas, told the Hürriyet Daily News.

He said the authorities could not even predict the results of the disaster. “If they could, they would accept foreign aid offers in the first place. The first few days were extremely important,” added Özçağdaş, who has worked with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and the Turkish Red Crescent before launching Sosyal İnovasyon Merkezi.

Turkey lacked a detailed disaster management plan, which should be ready for similar events in the future, he said.

AFAD worker’s insight

Turkey’s current authority for dealing with such disasters is called the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD), an institution established in 2009 to replace the Civil Defense General Directorate.

Although AFAD’s central administrative office remains in Ankara, the institution has teams of 100-120 rescue workers in 11 metropolitan cities in Turkey, whose only job is to intervene in the case of disaster.

An AFAD rescue specialist in İzmir, who preferred to remain anonymous, said AFAD’s general directorate in Ankara had even failed in transporting its workers to Van.

“We had to drive to Van by our own means because the plane carrying rescuers to the quake-hit city only had a few places. It took us 30 hours to drive there and we were all tired. The first 24 hours are critical and we lost that time,” the rescuer said.

Unfortunately, AFAD directors in Ankara are not experts in disaster management, they are just bureaucrats, he added. “There are about 100 crisis managers in Ankara, but none of them came to Van. The disaster management center was left to the district governor who has no experience in dealing with such cases.”

Özçağdaş gave further insight. “The governor who runs the crisis has to meet every other bureaucrat who comes to Van, according to the protocol rules. Ten ministers have come to Van so far. How can the head in charge of the crisis afford that time?” Other rescuers and civil defense experts who also worked in Van complained about the lack of coordination between the management branches.

“Turkey took a big step after the 1999 earthquake and we have many specially qualified rescue workers. However, we still have a long way to go in terms of coordination,” said former civil defense worker Ömer Karaca. Karaca said he could not imagine what might happen if an earthquake hits Istanbul. Others say Turkey has failed in the task of managing the disaster.

“We failed for the 600,000 people in Van. What would we do in Istanbul with 18 million people?” an AFAD specialist said.[1]

The human misery will continue to grow exponentially, because as we write, the victims are housed in poor conditions resembling prison camps, according to pro-government daily ZAMAN[2]:

“Quake victims in Van are grappling with severe weather conditions as the temperature decreased to seven degrees below zero and snow covered much of the region over the weekend, sparking questions over how locals will survive a tough winter in tents after news reports coming out of the region said that a 6-year-old child died on Saturday after he caught cold in a tent:

Deniz Olgun, a disabled six-year old child who lived in Van’s Çelebibağ area, died from pneumonia on Saturday after he caught cold in the tent in which he had been living for 18 days with his family following the first quake. Nevzat Çiçek, a journalist, reported the incident after coming into contact with the child’s father, who stated that the family was living in a nylon tent and had great difficulties in staying warm.

Considering the fact that many people still live in nylon tents, similar stories could be coming from the area in the weeks to come as the weather is getting worse in the region.

Officials such as Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay, who spoke with journalists on Saturday, say they are contemplating other measures to provide for more sustainable shelter for survivors in the face of the deadly cold as snow has covered the provincial center of Van and its districts, especially Erciş, where thousands still live in tents”.

Still “contemplating”, ehh? Rather than having done it already and apologized to the people?  IF Turkey were a truly democratic country, rather than an autocracy, ministers like  Deputy PM Beşir Atalay should have resigned immediately and had been impeached by now. To recall, he is also the Cabinet member to encourage the victims to return to their homes after the first earthquake hit Ercis, thus helping proliferate the death toll of the second quake.

One could perhaps sympathize with AKP which is failing to deal adequately with the monumental challenges created by the triple tremors, because the government can’t afford better.  Well,  if only that was true, because at least than we would be able to forget and forgive—after the wounds healed.

However the inhuman treatment afforded to victims of Van is not because of a lack of means.  It is because AKP chooses propaganda victories over the basic needs of its people and religious services over basic ones.

Remember Turkey’s historic evacuation of 20 thousand refuges from Libya?  According to AKP it was a text-book undertaking that demonstrated the greatness of the country.  Remember the special flights sent to Gaza Strip to evacuate sick babies? AKP always finds resources for such endeavors because they are actually such a cheap means of extolling the greatness of the party and wins it acclaim in international press.

There is another example of AKP’s well-funded  pet government agencies being able to organize and coordinate logistics for up to 60 thousand people being displaced temporarily.  Let’s review what another government agency did for the citizens entrusted to its care[3]:

  • Field mess tents to serve  up to 60 thousand persons at least two three-course meals a day, including for those with special dietary requirements
  • Fifteen specially equipped trucks to cater the meals to the mess tents
  • 780 personnel dedicated to serving the diners
  • 292 female personnel to cater to women only
  • Tents with air conditioners for up to 5 thousand sick and elderly
  • Two separate field hospitals with a total bed capacity of 200, attended  by  420 health professionals
  • 25 ambulances serving around the clock
  • 250 specially equipped buses to ferry the disabled and elderly around the town.
  • 50 semi-trucks to carry the personal belonging of the passengers
  • Up to 400 daily briefings and training seminars for the people

Do you know which government agency provided this five-star service to its clientele?  Do you know who these lucky citizens are?  The answers are Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı (The Directorate of Religious Affairs) and the 60 thousand pilgrims toMecca.

If only Van was located inLibya, or inMecca!

Atilla Yeşilada

The author thanks to conscientious fellow citizens for providing the background research who shall remain anonymous.

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