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Civil Society

Discrimination Made the Turkey-Syria Earthquake More Deadly

At 4 A.M. on February 6th, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake ripped through southern Turkey and northern Syria, instantly killing hundreds and trapping thousands more under piles of rubble. The death toll has risen by thousands every day, with the current numbers sitting at over 30,000 dead and 80,000 injured in both countries.

There are many reasons why the earthquake was so devastating, including faulty construction and storms that brought heavy rain and snow prior to the disaster. Yet reports from both Syria and Turkey suggest that another factor has contributed to the massive loss of life: anti-Kurdish discrimination.

Many in Turkey believe that the Turkish government’s lack of preparedness is to blame for the scope of the tragedy. A 6.8 magnitude earthquake that killed dozens in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority Elazig province in January 2020 could have served as a warning. Survivors of this quake were left questioning why the more than $10 billion in taxes collected after a deadly 1999 earthquake had not been spent on earthquake-proofing buildings in vulnerable regions. The People’s Democratic Party (HDP) also stated at the time that the Turkish Interior Ministry had blocked delivery of aid to Elazig.

Today, millions of survivors feel abandoned. “Rescue teams are insufficient. Residents try to rescue their relatives on their own, but the Turkish police doesn’t allow it,” Ismet Konak, a local journalist in southern Turkey, told the Kurdish Peace Institute.

“We don’t see any emergency workers, and we are afraid that people under the rubble have frozen to death. Turkish police are also gathering around the rubble and preventing rescuers from working,” Konak said.

While tens of thousands remained trapped under collapsed buildings, the Turkish government focused on attacking critics.

“We intend to closely follow those who intend to turn our people against each other with fake news and distortions. Today is not the day to argue with them. When the time comes, we will check our notes. Our prosecutors will identify those who try to cause social chaos with inhumane methods and take the necessary actions quickly,” Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said.

Just one day after the quake, Turkish Presidential Communications director Fahrettin Altun announced the launch of the “Disinformation Reporting Service” smartphone app. So far, over 300 social media users have been investigated over so-called “provocative” posts criticizing the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) response to the quake, with 37 individuals detained and 10 arrested.

According to internet-blocking trackers, Turkey has restricted its citizens’ access to Twitter, despite social media being a vital tool for rescue efforts and aid delivery. Coincidentally, within Turkey, social media is also one of the last remaining channels for criticism of the government and of state policies.

“Our colleagues in the scene seek to make reports. However, they are hampered by the police,” Konak said, adding that Mesopotamya Agency reporter Mehmet Guleş was taken into custody for reporting.

“As a result, residents of Amed try to carry out search and rescue operations with the support of HDP. They lost their hope in Turkish officials,” Konak stated.

In Turkish-held Syria, media censorship and political tactics are nearly identical.

In Afrin, which has been occupied by Turkish forces since 2018, journalists have been blocked from covering the earthquake and its consequences.

The Sultan Murad Division, which is part of the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army, banned journalists from accessing the Maydanki Lake Dam in Afrin’s Sharran district. While the Turkish-backed local council claimed that “initial results of safety checks showed that the dam’s walls have no leaks and the dam gate has no cracks,” some activists managed to publish photos showing massive cracks in the dam’s structure.

The situation in Syria has been compounded by the country’s 12-year war, which has destroyed nearly all of its infrastructure—especially in the northwest.

The near-daily bombardment of areas of northern Aleppo populated largely by Kurdish refugees did not cease during the humanitarian disaster. On January 7th, Turkish forces bombarded the area of Tel Rifaat with artillery shells, causing material damage to civilian homes.

Roj Mousa, a Syrian Kurdish journalist from Afrin, stated that displaced communities from Afrin have done their best to organize aid for the people of Jinderis. “We are trying to buy some food, water, blankets, and tents and send it to them,” he told the Kurdish Peace Institute.

“The main problem now is, after a week, when all the rubble clears, they must rebuild. Now in Jinderis, the second-largest city in the Afrin region, 90% of people are sleeping in the open.”

Help was slow to reach Afrin. According to Mousa, two days after the quake, international aid had still not entered the region, save for one small team of Egyptian search and rescue workers. A mass grave was dug for the victims of the earthquake in Jinderis to accommodate the nearly 1,000 bodies pulled from under the rubble.

Turkish and Turkish-backed authorities have pillaged much of the aid that has arrived. According to Syrian Kurdish journalist Massoud Akko, the first aid caravan allowed to enter Jinderis, from the Kurdistan Region of Iraq’s (KRI) Barzani Charity Foundation, took three days to travel 700 kilometers due to bureaucratic holdups.

“When this convoy passed through Turkey on its way to Afrin, half of the aid was seized by the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) for use in Turkey,” Akko told the Kurdish Peace Institute.

What little assistance that reached Afrin and Jinderis has been distributed unfairly.

“For Kurds living under the Syrian National Army, their situation was already bad before. They were oppressed, their homes were destroyed, and their property was stolen. The aid that is managing to make its way into the region is being stolen by the factions, Akko explained.

“When Kurds called for an excavator to dig graves for Kurds that had died, they were told to dig with their hands. Until now, they are discriminating against our people,” Akko said.

Discrimination against Kurdish areas has not only impacted the distribution of aid to victims. In Syria, it is also impacting its provision.

The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) was spared the worst of the earthquake. It has offered aid to help civilians in areas under regime and Turkish control. However, both parties have rejected aid, according to Syrian Kurdish journalist Hosheng Hesen.

“There is currently a convoy of 30 fuel tankers and two trucks of food, clothing, and other aid in Manbij. The Autonomous Administration prepared this for Afrin, Idlib, and other regions. However, they have not agreed because they consider the Autonomous Administration an enemy,” Hesen said.

Hesen added that since the 8th of February, 100 fuel tankers destined for regime areas the autonomous enclave of Sheikh Meqsoud in Aleppo have also been waiting in Manbij. However, the regime refused to accept them, demanding that it be given control over the distribution of 50 to 70 percent of the aid.

On Friday, a Doctors Without Borders convoy was allowed to pass through the Umm Jloud crossing from Manbij into northwest Syria.

Anonymous sources in northwest Syria told local agency North Press that activists are afraid to discuss their desire to accept aid from the Autonomous Administration directly, with one stating that the humanitarian sector in the northwest has been “infiltrated by people affiliated with or loyal to the security authorities.” Others stated that they feared arrest by Turkish-backed police if they were to publicly express their desire for humanitarian aid from northeast Syria.

In response to a call for the passage of aid into Syria’s northwest from the Autonomous Administration, one member of the Syrian National Army stated in a WhatsApp group: “If you want aid [from them], go and live among them.”

“As a journalist, a Kurd, and a Syrian, I hope that everyone can assist and that everyone can receive assistance: Turks, Arabs, and Kurds. Because this is a huge disaster,” Akko said.

 (Photo: BULENT KILIC/AFP via Getty Images)

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About the Author

Lucas Chapman


Lucas Chapman is a journalist based in northeast Syria. He previously worked as an editor and correspondent for North Press Agency and now works as a freelancer, writing for international outlets including Arab News and The Post Internazionale.

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