Turkey earthquake rescue efforts push ahead despite ethnic tensions

Despite tensions between its Turkish majority and the Kurdish minority that reside in the east, people have come from all four corners of the country to help out with the Turkey earthquake rescue.

Selcan Hacaoglu/AP
Rescue workers work around the clock on a flattened building under flood lights in the hopes of evacuating more people alive in the town of Ercis in Van province, Turkey, Tuesday.

Meticulous with his woolen tie, cashmere scarf, and waistcoat, Ahmet Misbah Demircan cut an incongruous figure in the eastern Turkey village of Gedik Bulak, which was reduced to rubble by a 7.2 magnitude earthquake Sunday.

Surrounded by a skeptical crowd of impoverished locals, the mayor of Istanbul's upmarket district of Beyoglu promised that aid was on the way. “I’m going to give each family a tent. Whatever they need we will try to do,” he told them.

The quake three days ago destroyed or damaged beyond repair every single house in this small village of 2,000 people, but it was only today that emergency services arrived. “We have 10 dead and 70 injured,” says village headman Idris Ileri. “So far, we’ve only been given 60 tents. We need far more.”

Still, the scene at Gedik Bulak reflected both the strengths and weaknesses of Turkey’s response to the earthquake, which has so far claimed at least 461 lives and injured more than 1,350 around the eastern cities of Van and Ercis. Though riven by tensions between its Turkish majority and the Kurdish minority that reside here in the east, people have come from all four corners of the country to help out with the crisis.

“I was in Erzurum when I first heard about the earthquake, I just left my family and drove straight here,” says Battal Adiguzel, who works in Turkey’s UMKE disaster response agency and says has not slept since the earthquake.

“There’s no way I can describe the situation when I got here," says Mr. Adiguzel, "We just tried to save people.”

Government officials said emergency services from 45 cities and more than 200 ambulances were deployed across the quake zone.

The Turkish Red Crescent has sent some 7,500 tents, more than 22,000 heaters, and 1,000 body bags to the region.

Some 40 people were pulled out alive from destroyed buildings on Tuesday, according to the Associated Press, including a 2-week-old baby. And Wednesday, a teen and a teacher were rescued as well.

Signs of disorganization

But while few doubt the commitment of the thousands of rescue workers now assisting in the aid effort, there have also been signs of serious disorganization.

"There was a failure in the first 24 hours, but in such situations such shortcomings are normal," Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan said. "There may not be sufficient equipment in depots at the start, but these have (now) been resolved with equipment from other depots."

In the worst hit towns of Ercis and Van, crowds of hungry residents looted supplies brought by Turkey’s Red Crescent society.

With temperatures close to freezing, the most acute problem is a lack of shelter for the tens of thousands of people either unwilling or unable to return to their homes.

Standing in a queue of more than 1,000 people waiting to be given tents in Ercis, Nesri Ketmen, says he has been sleeping outside for the past three nights with only a blanket and a fire.

“Last night it was snowing,” he says. “But there is nothing we can do. And we know it is only going to get colder.”

Later, many villagers who had shown up looking for help turned home after hearing the supply of tents had run out.

Offers of foreign aid

Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) has also been criticized for failing both in its preparedness for the quake, and for refusing offers of foreign aid.

“The government failed in this issue,” says Sebahat Tuncel, an member of parliament for the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). “It was wrong to refuse offers in the first 24 hours after the earthquake, this is the most crucial time.

Underlying attitudes toward the quake response are the simmering tensions between Turkey’s relatively impoverished Kurdish minority in the east of the country, and the more affluent, Turkish west.

“The west [of Turkey] does not care about us because we are in the east, and we are Kurds,” says Emrah Aslan, one of the furious villagers in Gedik Bulak.

Whatever the truth, there is a widespread acknowledgement that the economic neglect of the east has worsened the disaster.

Sinan Ozeren, an associate professor of geology at Istanbul Technical University, said poor infrastructure and housing quality in the east of the country may have hindered the response to the disaster.

He also warned that the country’s seismologists have not properly studied the complex network of faultlines in the region.

“I think it’s the case that the network of seismic detectors in the east of Turkey are not extensive enough,” he says.

He was particularly shocked that Turkey’s earthquake monitoring center, the Kandilli Observatory, had underestimated the strength of the quake significantly, initially recording it only as a 6.6 magnitude tremor.

“This is a complicated area, and I think there might be important aftershocks to follow,” he warns. “With these crisscrossing faults, it’s difficult for them to release energy in one go.”

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