The Turkish government requested 45,000 body-bags from the UN on August 24, giving the first clear indication of the final death-toll it is expecting from the earthquake that struck north-western Turkey at 3am on the morning of August 17. The chaos and destruction in towns and villages around the epicentre of the quake, near the town of Izmit, 145km east of Istanbul, were barely beginning to abate as Crescent went to press a week later.
The official death-toll had reached 12,800, but thousands more were missing, hidden under the rubble of collapsed buildings. A four-year-old boy was pulled out alive from the ruins of one apartment block on August 23, after 140 hours trapped under rubble, but that was a miraculous one-off. Demolition vehicles were bulldozing the rubble out of the way by this time, assuming that anybody under them would be dead.
A new threat emerged the next day, on August 24, when a Turkish soldier working on the relief effort was discovered to be suffering from typhoid, a acute infection spread by contaminated food and water, and which could easily reach epidemic proportions in the chaotic aftermath of the quake. The damage done to the region’s infrastructure will take months to even begin to repair. The lives of those affected will quite literally never be the same again.
The initial reaction to such a disaster is, of course, shock and determination to help the afflicted. The west’s well-oiled and well-financed international rescue effort swung into place and was helping to alleviate some of the suffering of ordinary people. Donations, food, clothes and other forms of assistance flooded in from Muslim countries also, although much of it came through western agencies. That, of course, is irrelevant to the needy people benefiting from them.
However, a few days after the tragedy, as people adjusted to the new reality and started thinking of their lives in the new conditions, questions started being raised about the Turkish government and military’s response to the earthquake. The Turkish government prides itself being the most modern government in the Muslim world. Turkey is in an earthquake zone, and there had been warnings about the possibility of a major quake in the region. Everybody was asking how the country was caught so unaware and unready, and that the response to the earthquake was so slow and haphazard. According to one local commentator, the final death-toll might be as much as twice what it would have been if the Turkish authorities had acted more quickly when the earthquake struck.
Questions are also being asked of the military in particular. The quarter-million strong force claims to be on a par with any army in Europe. The officer corps regards itself as the vanguard of Turkish modernity and civilization, and a bulwark against the forces of backwardness (read Islam). It has expertise in co-operating with NATO wherever it is needed in the world, undertaking UN missions on demand, co-operating and co-ordinating its activities with the Israelis on exercises in Anatolia and in the Mediterranean, supporting the US’s war against Iraq and maintaining a massive force dealing with Kurdish guerrillas in the east of the country.
But when Turkey’s people needed an well-organised, properly-equipped, well-trained force to deal with a natural disaster that was not unexpected, the military were found wanting. Commando units turned up two days after the earthquake and dug in the rubble with their bare hands because they still did not have moving equipment, and engineering units had not arrived on the scene. In Izmit, the army’s initial contribution was largely restricted to patrolling the streets in armoured vehicles. Hundreds of troops sat in convoys outside the town of Yalova, according to Robert Fisk in the London Independent, equipped only with automatic weapons, and having neither the tools nor the leadership to provide the stricken people with the services they required.
The fact is that the military has been built, equipped and trained by the west to meet the west’s needs. It has the best weaponry, plenty of fighter aircraft and helicopters, and no end of tanks. But it doesn’t have the instinct and the training to serve its own people. This was reflected also in the hours immediately after the earthquake. The Turkish chief of staff, general Huseyin Kivrikoglu, had an important guest - his American opposite number, general Henry H. Shelton. Instead of dropping everything to supervise the army’s response to the earthquake - surely the American general would have made allowances in the circumstances - Kivrikoglu spent the day in meetings with Shelton at army headquarters, and even took him on a formal visit to the tomb of Mustafa Kamal ‘Ataturk’. Shelton’s priority, meanwhile, was to step up US-Turkish operations against Iraq, rather than assist the Turks in their domestic problems.
Nothing could be more telling of who the Turkish military establishment really works for - the ordinary, poor Muslim people of Turkey, or the military powers based in Washington, London and and Tel Aviv.
Muslimedia: September 1-15, 1999