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Türkiye, Syria & the Kurds post-Quake: Is Discrimination an added Disaster?

March 31, 2023

by Hasan Karrdilo (SOAS) 

On the night of 6 February, southern and central regions of Türkiye and Syria’s north-western regions were hit by two devastating earthquakes. The first struck with a record-breaking magnitude of 7.8 on the Richter scale, while the second registered 7.5. Over 50,000 people were reported killed. In excess of 200,000 buildings were seriously damaged or destroyed. Families were literally ripped apart. Rendered suddenly homeless, and with essential infrastructure (such as schools and hospitals) gone,  traumatised survivors led heroic rescue efforts in freezing weather conditions to try to rescue their loved ones and neighbours.

As the quake’s epicentre, the majority-Kurdish town of Pazarcik, in the city of Kahramanmaraş (known locally as Maraş) in Türkiye suffered intense devastation.  In Syria, now in its 12th year of a brutal and protracted civil war, this latest blow was particularly savage. In areas like Idlib, already suffering the cumulative effect of years of war, internally displaced people who’d managed to survive the quakes were then flooded out of the tents that provided at least some form of temporary shelter.

Shortly after the quakes, criticism of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s earthquake response started to emerge. It took over two days for rescue teams to even enter the majority-Arab city of Hatay. Many claimed that building regulations had not been followed, leading to their inability to withstand the quakes. Slow distribution of aid meant that thousands were left without any help for days. Erdoğan’s was forced to admit that his government’s response was inadequate.  Meanwhile, adding to the suffering, and with the world looking on, the Turkish army continued to bomb and shell earthquake-ravaged Kurdish cities of Northern Syria.

Rather than respond to critics, Erdoğan’s government’s attempted to shut them down, arresting critics and fining those who reported on the earthquake response. Meanwhile, access to Twitter was severely restricted. Many argue that the demographic of the quake-hit areas dictated Erdoğan’s response. The majority of the cities affected by the earthquakes are Kurdish and the majority of Kurds in this region belong to the Alevi/Elawî faith. The Alevis have historically been considered to be heretics and have been subject to several massacres, including the infamous 1978 massacre in Maraş.

Kurds argue that the Turkish government’s response is in keeping with the historically fractious and often violent relationship it has had with Kurdish people. They cite a history of violent repression and forced assimilation towards Kurdish and Alevi communities.  Pazarcik, the epicentre of the earthquake in the city of Maraş, is of particular significance, as the Turkish army marched through it on its way to occupy the Syrian Kurdish city of Afrin in 2018, forcefully displacing some 300,000 Kurds. At the time of writing, very little aid had been sent by Türkiye to Pazarcik. In fact, on 16 February, Pazarcik’s district governor, a member of Erdogan’s government, forcefully seized aid with the support of the Turkish military. Unsurprisingly, Kurds and their supporters have taken to social media, with many accusing the Turkish government of adopting a colonial stance in its response to the quake.

It is worth noting the response of The Turkish pro-minority Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), whose former co-President Selahattin Demirtaş has been imprisoned since 2016,has helped lead the  grassroots aid efforts in Pazarcik. These grassroots aid efforts were of symbolic significance because the HDP’s Crisis Coordination Centre was based in a Cemevi, a place of worship for Alevis. Their efforts, coupled with the swift and impressive response of the Kurdish and Alevi diaspora, have been invaluable in helping save lives and in providing succour to the survivors. At the time of writing, the plight of the earthquake survivors has slipped off the front pages and the news headlines. But the suffering continues. Organisations like UNICEF and the DEC continue to provide assistance, but they need help. We urge those who can donate to give what they can. We are not seeing the suffering, but it has not ceased to exist. Sadly, it will continue to impact on the lives of Kurds, Turks and Syria for years to come. Please do not look away.

Photos:Çağlar Oskay/ Unsplash (View profile) 


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