Analysis Haaretz|  Turkey’s Humanitarian Disaster Is Just Beginning

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‘Let the president come here if he dares, a resident of the town of Adiyaman said. ‘No member of parliament or senior official has come. You’ve left us all alone. Our blood is on your hands. Where is the Disaster and Emergency Management Authority? Wake up!’

Women sit in front of the rubble of an area destroyed during the earthquake in Antakya, southeastern Turkey, in February.
Women sit in front of the rubble of an area destroyed during the earthquake in Antakya, southeastern Turkey, in February.Credit: Bernat Armangue /AP

In a PR photo taken in the Turkish president’s airplane, five of the 16 babies shown are resting peacefully in the arms of volunteers who are feeding them bottles of milk. Wrapped in matching blankets, the babies were being transported in the luxurious plane fitted with plush and roomy seats to a hospital in Ankara, Turkey’s capital. No one knows their names, or who their relatives are, or if their parents survived the earthquake, or what will become of them after the initial medical care.

President Erdogan, who visited the earthquake zone, made sure to have his picture taken with children and babies, patting their heads and smiling at their parents. But he was not seen next to the babies and small children who did not become “celebrities” and who are sprawled on thin mats in school gyms or mosques covered with clothes or rags and being looked after by women who are not their mothers, in bitter cold and surviving on meager aid rations.

A photograph taken and released by the Turkish Presidential Press Office on February 13, 2023 shows Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his wife Emine Erdogan holding a baby as they visit wounded and rescued people at Basaksehir Cam and Sakura State Hospital in Istanbul, a week after an earthquake devastated parts of Turkey and Syria.
A photograph taken and released by the Turkish Presidential Press Office on February 13, 2023 shows Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his wife Emine Erdogan holding a baby as they visit wounded and rescued people at Basaksehir Cam and Sakura State Hospital in Istanbul, a week after an earthquake devastated parts of Turkey and Syria.Credit: AFP PHOTO / “HANDOUT Turkish Presidential Press Office

According to UNICEF, more than seven million children in Turkey and Syria are in need of immediate care. These include 4.6 million children who lived in the hardest hit earthquake zones, and another two and half million children who are victims of “collateral damage” – suffering from trauma, food shortages and disorientation, even if they weren’t directly hurt by the earthquake.

The Turkish Youth Ministry mustered more than eight thousand volunteers who were sent to the devastated region to assist families in this new stage of their lives in which they will be forced to live in tents or other temporary structures; volunteer families are hosting thousands of uprooted families; and meals that come mainly from donors and partly from government aid are being distributed in makeshift shelters. There are numerous moving stories about companies that have donated millions of dollars in aid, or about men and women who have left their ordinary lives behind to come to the earthquake zones with packages of food, toys, blankets, and other vital supplies.

Displaced residents warm up beside a fire in a camp at Masal Park, in Gaziantep, in February.
Displaced residents warm up beside a fire in a camp at Masal Park, in Gaziantep, in February.Credit: ZEIN AL RIFAI – AFP

But for the orphans who are not even identified, there are no easy and immediate solutions. Aid organizations and the country’s Welfare Ministry report having received hundreds of thousands of requests from Turkey and elsewhere to adopt the babies and children, but the adoption process is neither simple nor quick. Turkish law is very strict in regard to approving adoption and the orphans could spend many months in orphanages and temporary shelters until a new home is found for them.

The Welfare Ministry announced that it would start distributing the orphans among foster families and adoptive families, but experience and studies show that all too often, hasty adoption can cause great harm, sometimes lifelong harm, for someone who was placed in an unsuitable home. There have also been cases where the adoptive parents’ initial enthusiasm waned, and they decided to return the child to the welfare authorities. Or the child comes to be seen as a burden and then becomes a victim.

People are pictured on an athletic track, which serves as a camp for survivors, in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake in Adiyaman, Turkey in February.
People are pictured on an athletic track, which serves as a camp for survivors, in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake in Adiyaman, Turkey in February.Credit: THAIER AL-SUDANI/ REUTERS

There is also concern over the potential for kidnapping and child trafficking, as has happened during similar events in Turkey and other countries. Turkish media have already reported on the arrests of suspected child traffickers, and civil organizations are urging that close-up pictures of children not be posted on social media, even if the aim is to locate their relatives. The fear is that such advertisements provide the child trafficking gangs with a lot of information that can help them locate and kidnap the children.

Identifying and providing them with immediate care is only part of the problem. Many parents lost all their documents and records with their medical history and are struggling to obtain the medications they need for themselves or their children, or to explain what medical treatments they need. The clinics where they used to receive treatment were destroyed, the doctors and nurses who knew and cared for the families are either dead or missing.

No one can say how long these people will have to keep living in these terrible conditions or how they will be able to get through the cold and rain of the winter months. Erdogan has pledged to build tens of thousands of new apartments within a year for the hundreds of thousands who lost their homes, but professional opinions published by engineers and architects depict this promise as empty talk that cannot be accomplished in a year.

In addition to the aid efforts, the authorities are carrying out a survey of the buildings to assess the extent of the damage and determine compensation arrangements. Murat Kurum, the Minister of Environment, Urbanization and Climate Change, reported that the first survey, done by 7,100 surveyors which examined more than 300,000 buildings, found that besides those that were completely destroyed, it will be necessary to demolish about 50,000 more buildings that are in dangerous condition, and an additional 279,000 buildings that were either partially damaged or not damaged at all.

Bulldozers work among the rubble of collapsed buildings in Adiyaman, Turkey in February.
Bulldozers work among the rubble of collapsed buildings in Adiyaman, Turkey in February.Credit: ILYAS AKENGIN – AFP

Anger over the extent of the damage and the initial haplessness in aiding the earthquake victims; the delay in sending soldiers to help, even though their bases are located near the affected cities; and the shortage of equipment and rescue personnel have now been replaced with harsh criticism of the government and Erdogan for their lack of oversight, lack of preparedness and, above all, the way they ignored and circumvented construction laws to enable contractors close to them to build projects swiftly and cheaply and thereby reap large profits.

Over the last week, the Turkish media have reported that from 1999, when strict building codes were put into effect following an earthquake that killed some 17,000 people, to last year, the authorities handed out roughly seven millions such exemptions. Of these, 5.8 million were for residential housing.

Erdogan said this week that “98 percent of the homes destroyed” in the current earthquake “were built before 1999.” Construction experts disagreed. But even if his figure were correct, there is no explanation for why some homes – including some that are jammed right up against each other – remained standing while others collapsed completely.

Survivors gather next to a bonfire outside collapsed buildings in Kahramanmaras in February 8.
Survivors gather next to a bonfire outside collapsed buildings in Kahramanmaras in February 8.Credit: ADEM ALTAN – AFP

The government has begun trying to identify the people responsible for the flawed construction. So far, it said, it has identified and detained 221 contractors, work supervisors and engineers. As of Thursday, 60 of them were still in custody.

But any hopes that justice will be done and the people responsible will pay compensation and fines may well prove false. The Turkish website Bianet, which focuses on human rights issues and is funded by the European Union, published an investigative report this week that detailed the results of legal proceedings after other earthquakes or collapses of multistory buildings in Turkey.

In one case, it said, 2,100 indictments were initially filed. That number quickly shrank to 300, and of them, only 110 ended in conviction. But even then, the sentences were suspended in most cases.

There were other cases in which people were sentenced to jail terms of three to five years, and once even 18 years. But in these cases, too, the sentences were later either shortened or canceled entirely. The same was true of the fines imposed on the people convicted.

Volunteers carry shrouds to use for covering the victims who died of a deadly earthquake in Adiyaman, Turkey in February.
Volunteers carry shrouds to use for covering the victims who died of a deadly earthquake in Adiyaman, Turkey in February.Credit: THAIER AL-SUDANI/ REUTERS

Most of the victims of the latest disaster will have to wait for the compensation from the government, if it in fact approves a compensation plan. Most are not insured, and even those who did insure their property will likely have to wage exhausting battles with the insurance companies. The companies will surely try to cast all the blame on the government, and in any case, the proceedings will drag out for years.

The Turkish Industry and Business Association, which represents some 55,000 businesspeople, estimated the damage to the economy at more than $80 billion, around 10 percent of gross domestic product. The bulk of this, $70 billion, stemmed from damage to buildings, it said. Another $10 billion was due to loss of income and $3 billion to loss of work days.

In a situation where the president is viewed as the person who is ultimately responsible, the last thing Erdogan needs right now is an election. The election was supposed to take place in mid-June, but Erdogan – who wanted to keep the opposition from organizing against him – moved it up to May 14. Now, his party wants to postpone it for at least a year to give it time to demonstrate its ability to rebuild and to divert public anger.

Displaced people wait to receive food at an athletic track, which serves as a camp for survivors, in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake in Adiyaman, Turkey in February.
Displaced people wait to receive food at an athletic track, which serves as a camp for survivors, in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake in Adiyaman, Turkey in February.Credit: THAIER AL-SUDANI/ REUTERS

“Right now, when we’re experiencing the worst disaster in our history, the state must be freed of the pressure of elections as quickly as possible,” Bulent Arinc, a former speaker of parliament and a senior member of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), said this week. “We cannot hold elections in May or June. It simply can’t happen.”

But the constitution states that elections can be postponed only during a war, so Erdogan will have to amend the relevant article. That isn’t expected to be too difficult for him, even if all the opposition parties oppose it. The question is whether the public will accept this decision and not demand that the election be held on time so it can exact a political price from the president and his party.

A resident of the town of Adiyaman whose family was hurt in the earthquake expressed her frustration with a harshness that reflected prevailing public sentiment. “Let the president come here if he dares,” she said. “No member of parliament or senior official has come. You’ve left us all alone. Our blood is on your hands. Where is the Disaster and Emergency Management Authority? Wake up!”

www.haaretz.com

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