By Harut Sassounian,
Publisher, The California Courier
With each passing day, the number of victims of the earthquake in Turkey is increasing. Our heart goes out to the nearly 50,000 dead and close to 200,000 injured as of now. The ancient city of Antioch (Antakya) with a population of 250,000 has been mostly reduced to rubble.
As I wrote last week, Armenians should distinguish between the Turkish government that committed the Genocide and the Turkish people who played no role in this mass crime. Not one of today’s Turks was alive in 1915.
In recent days, hundreds of articles have been written by journalists from around the world pointing out that Pres. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s corrupt practices increased the toll of the disaster manifold. Erdogan who came to power in 2003 as a devout Muslim has turned into a corrupt dictator. As it is said, “power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Many Turks blame Erdogan personally for the large number of deaths and the collapse or damage of over 100,000 buildings which were poorly-constructed by the President’s cronies. At least one million people have been left homeless in Turkey.
Let’s start with the earthquake tax that the Turkish government established after the earthquake in 1999 which had caused the deaths of 17,000 people in Turkey. In 2021, by a presidential decree, the tax was increased from 7.5% to 10% on all private communication. The billions of dollars raised through this tax were used to fund construction, transport and agricultural projects, instead of the intended purposes of reinforcing buildings and disaster prevention.
Reuters reported the anguished plea from a mother whose two sons were trapped alive for two days under the rubble in Antakya, begging for a crane to rescue her children. “Many in Turkey say more people could have survived the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck the south of the country and neighboring Syria if the emergency response had been faster and better organized.” In the absence of an organized rescue effort, people were forced to dig through the rubble with their bare hands to save their family members.
Turkish soldiers either did not show up to help in the rescue or were too slow to arrive, awaiting orders from Erdogan’s civilian officials. Interestingly, Erdogan had “risen to prominence more than two decades ago partly due to his critique of the response to a major 1999 earthquake,” Reuters reported. Instead, “he hollowed out state institutions, placed loyalists in key positions, wiped out most civil society organizations, and enriched his cronies to create a small circle of loyalists around him,” according to Foreignpolicy.com. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition party, said that even more damaging than the magnitude of last week’s quake was the “lack of coordination, lack of planning and incompetence.”
Making the disaster worse, “in 2019, Pres. Erdogan of Turkey praised legislation that his political party had pushed through allowing property owners to have construction violations forgiven without bringing their buildings up to code,” according to The New York Times. Up to 75,000 buildings were given such amnesties in the earthquake zone alone. Ironically, just a few days before the earthquake, the government was about to issue another amnesty for construction violators. Now the Turkish government is arresting building contractors with ties to collapsed buildings. But the true culprits are the government officials who approved these shoddy buildings. Many of the owners of these buildings have close ties to Pres. Erdogan or his ruling political party.
Rather than taking urgent measures to rescue the trapped citizens, Erdogan lashed back at his critics. One such critic, “a French journalist with long experience in Turkey, Guillaume Perrier, was detained at the Istanbul airport and deported back to France, with a five-year ban on his reentry into the country,” the Middle East Institute reported. Furthermore, the government temporarily closed down the social media in the midst of the earthquake to block criticism of the Turkish government’s incompetence.
The Jerusalem Post published an article on Feb. 20, titled: “After the earthquake, Turkey’s Erdogan hunts for scapegoats.” The article stated that: “Erdogan’s house of cards has collapsed with the earthquake. There is already a rush to find scapegoats and as well as the arrests of looters…. Faced with the coming elections, what Erdogan will find equally hard to explain is a video circulating on social media, where he boasted he had approved a construction amnesty for buildings in the earthquake epicenter of Kahramanmarash, in 2019. This meant they were absolved from adhering to building and earthquake regulations. In the 10 earthquake provinces, almost 295,000 buildings were included.”
One of the unexpected side effects of the disastrous earthquake is that Turkey will be preoccupied for several years with the reconstruction of over 100,000 collapsed buildings. Turkey’s attention will be sidetracked from attacking Syria, Iraq, Cyprus, Greece, Armenia and Libya. These countries will breathe a sigh of relief for a while!