Editorial: Earthquake deaths are not a natural disaster

March 17, 2023

From the March-April 2023 issue of News & Letters

Twin earthquakes on Feb. 6, magnitude 7.8 and 7.5, decimated a vast area of south-central Turkey and northwest Syria. They produced a catastrophe with human tragedies over hundreds of square miles. But it was the man-made disaster on top of the natural one that killed more than half of the over 50,000 victims accounted for so far. In the words of writer Amanda Taub: “Whether an earthquake occurs is a question of geology. But surviving one is a question of human decision-making—and often of politics.”


On the Turkish side, specialized equipment and supplies, even trained sniffing dogs, arriving almost immediately from multiple donor countries, helped find and extract thousands of survivors from the rubble. Within a week, most of the world’s countries had sent rescue teams or other aid.

Despite the Turkish government’s repeated chauvinist campaigns and state terrorism against Kurdish and Armenian populations within Turkey and abroad, even Kurdistan (in Iraq) and Armenia sent aid. In Armenia’s case, this opened diplomatic ties with Turkey for the first time since 1993.

But the rubble was overwhelmingly from buildings constructed since the great earthquake of 1999—buildings subject to supposedly rigorous construction standards intended to make sure they withstood the next earthquake.

Collapsed buildings exposed that the government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose party ascended to power partly by criticizing the previous government’s response to the 1999 earthquake, had overseen a system allowing developers to ignore the new rules in return for bribes—even, in some cases, substituting styrofoam for reinforced concrete.

Erdoğan then did an about-face and shamed his critics for “politicizing a tragedy.” These critics include members of the Union of Turkish Bar Associations, which announced that lawyers were ready to assist in investigations of possible construction flaws among destroyed buildings.


Unlike in Syria, official rescue teams from several organizations were quick to help earthquake victims in Turkey. Photo: EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid.

In Syria, just a trickle of the relief aid that poured into Damascus made it to districts under Bashar al-Assad’s control. Meanwhile, in rebel-held areas, 12 years of incessant bombardment by Assad, made even worse in the last eight years by troops and bombs from Russia and Iran, had caused structural fragility even before the earthquake.

No aid of any kind came for 10 days, time for most of those buried to die under the rubble. Aid finally reached hard-hit cities like Afrin. Assad took advantage of the tragedy by trying to negotiate the end of sanctions against his terrorist regime in exchange for permitting aid to reach rebel-held areas before agreeing to border crossings for UN and international relief. Assad’s extortion largely worked, even though humanitarian aid is exempt from UN, EU and U.S. sanctions.

To the rage of local residents, the first convoy arrived with only cleaning supplies, all but admitting that they had come too late to bring rescue equipment. As of Feb. 16, Assad had resumed shelling in the northwestern town of Al Atarib, presumably targeting rescue workers like Syrian Civil Defense: the White Helmets.

“It has been 12 years of us asking for help, calling on people who have discarded us as we died in front of their eyes,” said Hussam Zleito, 47, a member of Syrian Civil Defense. “And during this huge unfortunate humanitarian crisis, the world has turned its back on us, as if there aren’t human beings in this area, as if there are no souls [here].” Working with little more than backhoes, hand tools and their bare hands, the White Helmets, who had rescued victims of regime and Russian attacks, documented pulling out over 2,800 trapped victims of the earthquake.

More than 11 days after the earthquakes, with damaging aftershocks as great as 6.4 magnitude that took more lives, rescuers in Turkey’s Hatay province and in rebel-held Idlib were still locating victims and pulling them alive from under piles of rubble.

Some local citizens in hard-hit Turkish regions, irate at the government neglect, could only vent their anger at an Austrian rescue team—Turkish officials knew to avoid angry critics. Erdoğan evaded a woman who managed to get close enough to shout at him by jumping into a car and fleeing. Assad had no such worries: After 12 years of slaughtering the people who continue to oppose him, nothing he did after the earthquake could make Syrians hate him more than they already do.

True humanitarian aid means supporting the self-determination of the people to live in freedom and in their own best interests.

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