Ecehan Balta is a member of TIP (Workers’ Party of Turkey) commision for international aid. TIP International can be contacted at [email protected]
Q: The earthquake in the borders between Turkey and Syria has been an unimaginable disaster for the people of the area. What is the situation now?
Ecehan Balta: As you know, on February 6, there were 2 big earthquakes, one after the other on the Eastern Anatolia fault line. Ten cities in Turkey were seriously affected. Two city centers, many districts and villages were almost completely destroyed. There are also seriously affected settlements and significant losses in Syria. The death toll in these two countries is already more than 47,000 according to official numbers.
Turkey has 42 percent of its territory located on a first degree fault line. This fact alone should have forced the government to invest heavily on civil protection, anti-earthquake technologies, ect. Instead, almost no work on these fields was done before, during and after the earthquake. The lack of preparation before the earthquake is partly responsible for this great disaster. But the lack of a proper reaction afterwards had probably more consequences.
Q: Can you tell us what has been the response of the state?
EB: Search and rescue operations started very late. The lack of machinery and equipment was obvious. People trapped under the rubble took to Twitter to report their location and make their voices heard. The Erdogan regime then shut down Twitter for a certain period of time. A state of emergency was declared but no military mobilization was carried out. Trucks from non-governmental organizations were seized. And even, a state trustee was appointed to an institution that was normally a Cemevi (an important place of worship for Alevis) and was turned into an aid collection center during the earthquake, without consultation with the people.
Since February 6, we have seen the organized state in essence turning against earthquake victims.
The homeless refugees whose number is around a million have no other city to go to. It is very difficult for disabled people to live in tent conditions. Providing security for women and children is another issue. Infrastructure repair in the region is still far from complete. The region accounts for 20 percent of Turkey’s agriculture, but there are no available fertilizers. On top of that, debris is dumped on agricultural land.
There are still many people and animals under the rubble. We fear long-term health effects from asbestos and other chemical exposure from the rubble of old buildings. There is a very serious population movement. It is a phenomenon affecting 2 million people directly and 15 million people indirectly. There have been mass migrations to big cities, where there are other problems, especially housing.
Q: So, the people have had to organise themselves?
EB: We are now used to the fact that there is no help from the state. We are trying to heal our own wounds. But this is very difficult and long-term work.
The Left and the social movements have stepped in to cover the inexistence or outright hostility of the state. We have established crisis centers in the region and started to build tent cities and container cities. We are trying to deliver aid packages on a regular basis. We are also establishing solidarity platforms in big cities. We shall see together how we will stand up to it.
Q: Who is to blame for such a heavy death toll?
EB: In the words of one eyewitness, this earthquake “moved the mountain”. But those responsible for these deaths are those who built those houses on that fault line without making them earthquake-resistant, those who allowed those houses to be built, those who approved the construction even though it was not in accordance with the rules, those who issued zoning amnesty laws, and everyone who made money from this business. Turkey has turned towards a form of “cement capitalism” at an accelerating pace since 2009. Production and industry are being sidelined by bigger and bigger construction projects. The 8 cement companies that hold more than half of the market make money from build-and-sell projects. The faster the construction, the more money they make. It is very clear that the system that profits from disaster is responsible for this earthquake; this is what we call disaster capitalism.
Q: There were some arrests but also there seem to be attempts for a cover-up to let those responsible off the hook. Can you elaborate on what is happening here?
EB: To give just one example, in Hatay, within a few hours the state services used two bulldozers to demolish a one-storey building along with the documents inside which contained zoning plans. This happened after the earthquake, and critical material that could lead to finding those responsible was thus buried under the rubble. At the same time, many earthquake victims were waiting to be rescued under the rubble in many parts of the city. Yes, they arrested a few contractors, but they are just the scapegoats. They are hiding the real criminals. There has not been a single resignation from the government who are constantly issuing zoning amnesties.
Q: The Erdogan regime is confiscating all humanitarian aid coming to Turkey. How exactly is humanitarian aid managed and what is the response of the Left in Turkey to that?
EB: Foreign aid is a serious problem. There, too, they constantly use the means of the one-man authoritarian regime. A method of sending aid that is valid for one day is blocked as soon as it is realized. Currently, it is only possible to send aid in cash or in kind from abroad to state institutions. We also see that there is mistrust in the international community about how this aid will be used. We are trying to find and share daily information on what people and movements can do to keep abreast of changes and offer true class solidarity to the people of Turkey, without offering the Erdogan regime with aid it can present as its own, according to its political agenda.
Finally, let me say that the earthquakes do not recognize national borders. And neither does our sense of solidarity, we have seen this very clearly in the people’s response.