By Fulden İbrahimhakkıoğlu

Abstract: The earthquakes that struck Turkey and Syria last February wreaked havoc in the region, resulting in around 60,000 fatalities and the collapse of over 160,000 buildings. While it became clear that the state institutions were woefully unprepared for a disaster of this magnitude, accountability was put on individual contractors rather than the state policies that allowed them to get away with corruption. This article discusses the failings of the state as a matter of institutional betrayal.

“A scene from paradise” read the advertisements of Rönesans Rezidans, a luxurious apartment complex built in the southern Turkish city of Hatay in 2013 with twelve stories and around 700 residents. It completely collapsed during the earthquakes that took place in Kahramanmaraş in February of 2023, leaving a thousand people under the rubble. One of its contractors, Mehmet Yaşar Coşkun, was arrested in Istanbul Airport, as he was getting ready to depart to Montenegro, where his brother and business partner Hüseyin Yalçın Coşkun resided. A red notice was issued for him as well.

The two earthquakes rating 7.7 and 7.6 on the Richter scale affected 15 million people across 140,000 square miles with a death toll of over 60,000 in Turkey and Syria. Shortly thereafter, Turkish social media became flooded with images of buildings of high-end condos, some of which were no more than a year old and on the market for millions of liras. The ads for these condos, all of which collapsed during these earthquakes, claimed that they had been built in accordance with the earthquake regulations and with top-notch materials. At least 332 contractors [1], who used cheap, substandard material on earthquake zones with no apparent regard to regulations, ended up arrested and charged with “negligent cause for death or injury.” 

While these contractors take the fall as major players in a neoliberal system that values corporate profit over public safety, government officials remained quiet about the part they have played in instituting this system, by calling the incidents “a matter of fate.” Over the last two decades of being in power, the Justice and Development Party (JDP or in Turkish, AKP) has continually prided itself on its construction projects. In Hatay, roads, airports, hospitals, and government buildings built by companies tied to the government have either collapsed or been severely damaged in these recent earthquakes, leading to the disruption and delay of search-and-rescue efforts during the first few days in the aftermath of the disaster. Government agencies like the Disaster Relief Management Presidency (AFAD) proved highly inefficient and incompetent in coordinating. Neither the staff nor the equipment, which independent volunteers also counted on, managed to arrive on time in the most severely affected regions. Like various Turkish state agencies, AFAD is staffed with AKP-approved bureaucrats, many of whom had had no prior experience in disaster relief, including its own general director İsmail Palakoğlu, a theologian who previously served in the Directorate of Religious Affairs. According to the newspaper Birgün, one of AFAD’s own internal reports stated, “instead of engineers, we have assembled teams of teachers and imams.” [2] As precious time was lost during those critical first few days, trained and untrained volunteers attempted to rescue without proper equipment whomever they could pull out of the rubble. As many of the survivors waited to be rescued for days, mosques kept playing sela (a prayer for the dead), deeming those lives, as it were, already lost. Listening to their own sela, survivors were abandoned under the rubble for days by state institutions whose sole purpose is to respond to disasters.

It would be inadequate to call all that has transpired following the earthquakes a matter of institutional failure, despite the fact they were, indubitably, marked by gross incompetence. More than institutional failure, I suggest that what these events impart is institutional betrayal. The earthquake taxes that had been collected over the past few decades (amounting to $36.5 billion at the end of 2022) were nowhere to be found during this time of emergency as the government officials kept asking the public for donations. They had previously admitted that these funds were utilized for various construction projects, like building roads or airports (which, in the case of Hatay, ironically collapsed). Ignoring various scientists’ warnings that a major earthquake was imminent in these areas, amnesties were offered every few years to buildings that do not comply with the earthquake regulations, where contractors could simply pay a fine to prevent demolition. The Turkish Red Crescent, which was notably absent on the ground in the first few days of the earthquake, apparently sold $2.44 million worth of tents on the third day of the disaster to Ahbap, an NGO that remarkably proved much better coordinated than any state institution. On a live TV show broadcasted by all national networks, corporations, various state institutions (including the Central Bank), celebrities, and politicians practically competed with one another to make the largest donation to AFAD and the Red Crescent. The economist Özgür Orhangazi remarked that the state was transporting funds from “one pocket to another,” while shamelessly making a spectacle out of it. [3]

This disaster was not a mere tragedy: many of these deaths were preventable. As the weight of accountability is pushed onto individual contractors rather than institutional practices that allow those contractors to get away with their corrupt ways, we see that the government’s negligence is cloaked and being rebranded as “fate.” The real disaster was not due to fate, but to the nepotism and favoritism that left various state agencies incompetent in the absence of qualified staff. It was not fate but corporate greed and the Turkish government’s policies that serve as its breeding ground. It was not fate but a matter of prioritizing profit over people. 

Institutional betrayal continued well beyond the confines of search-and-rescue efforts when President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that the earthquake survivors would be housed in university dormitories and that universities would continue all educational activities online – an arrangement that created more problems than it solved. On the day of this announcement, a video appeared showing students being forced out of dormitories, including a young woman who lost her home and parents in the earthquake. Many survivors moved to cities where they had relatives. Due to convenient location, relative affordability, and being the one of the few places in Turkey that is not an immediate earthquake zone, the capital city of Ankara became one of the most preferred places to move. Yet many of the survivors who arrived at Ankara Esenboğa Airport where AFAD made arrangements for those who did not have a place to stay, found out that they were out of vacancies.

Many students (and instructors) were woefully unprepared for this transition back to online learning, for which they did not get any institutional support – whereas during the pandemic, some universities (including my own) and other organizations provided computers to students in need. We have students who survived the earthquake and had to move their families to Ankara, where they all lived with extended family, without a room of their own, which made it incredibly difficult to focus on their online courses. Rather than developing institutional strategies for addressing students’ (or instructors’) issues, decisions were made on the fly at my institution. During this time, the Council of Higher Education simply “announced” what must be done, with no regard for how it can be done – for instance, the midterm exams were supposed to be taken online, despite the fact that many students did not own a computer or a smartphone.

In contrast to the pandemic, many of us thought that this mandatory switch to online learning was altogether unnecessary. Various commentators suspected that the decision was made to utilize student dormitories rather than other state housing before the upcoming general elections in order to minimize the likelihood of student protests on campuses. This decision had left students, many of whom were directly affected by the earthquake, feeling isolated and without community. It left their instructors unsure about how to proceed in the absence of any institutional guidance about student and faculty well-being, which was particularly odd in the case of my university, where the majority of our administrators are psychology professors. It is not uncommon that as instructors we sometimes have to act like a counselor for students. Yet in the absence of vital institutional resources, we had no choice but to rely on being kind, understanding, and accommodating of needs, sometimes in ways that are far beyond our expertise or ability. Shortly after our midterm, which we were mandated to do online, a student approached me admitting that they used ChatGPT for an assignment. I suspected that our long list of warnings pertaining to plagiarism prompted her to come forward. She said that after having picked a tombstone with her family for her cousin, who did not survive the earthquake, she was not able to understand a word of our course’s weekly readings, which were ironically on care ethics. Instead of opting out of writing a reflection paper that week, she thought she would get away with submitting an AI-generated text, but felt terrible about it afterwards. She said, “I wanted to do something bad and I did.” Not given a chance to grieve nor the resources that would help do so collectively, the entire semester felt like trying to push through something immovable. Education served at best as a distraction rather than an opportunity for healing. “How can we just show up to classes,” many of my students asked, “as if nothing had happened, as if nothing was happening?” I did not have an answer. As the vice chair of my department, I constantly had to put out fires where some of my colleagues were insistently misreading the inattentiveness of their students and instituting stricter class policies (sometimes even against the university’s regulations) to make sure that their classes go as “normal” as possible. It was lost on them that the students were checked out not because they did not take their education seriously, but because a degree seemed futile in the broader context of disaster. This was another way in which institutions failed us in the aftermath of these earthquakes – the absence of both physical and psychological resources added insult to injury.

Following the most recent elections where AKP and Erdoğan came out victorious once again, many who opposed Erdoğan expressed anger towards those who reside in the regions affected by the earthquake. Despite blatant institutional betrayal that led to tens of thousands of lost lives, the majority of the votes in these regions went once again to the Republic Alliance, securing them another term. This sense of defeat led to victim blaming and retaliatory discourses, where many people declared that they would stop sending supplies to these regions. “They are now the government’s problem,” some claimed, “the government which they helped elect.” While their disappointment is understandable, victim blaming is anything but productive. Cultivating “solidarity not charity” involves an ongoing transformative experience and not a short-term transaction. The chances are, those who are not able (or allowed) to imagine another possibility for themselves will continue to align with power. Only resistance in the form of mutual aid can bring about new possibilities where we can imagine ourselves, our lives, and our relations to others. These imaginative possibilities come out of the connections we continue to establish and networks of care we continue to sustain and expand.

As people waited under the rubble to be rescued, there were reports that volunteers from various organizations were fighting over who got to rescue them. The practice of mutual aid commits to cooperation over competition.  Mutual aid is neither an act of charity nor heroism. It is an anarchic form of organizing that honors and nurtures our sense of relationality and interdependence; one that recognizes ways in which precarity is unevenly distributed among groups of people. It must be attentive to systematic forms of exclusion and seek to overcome them. Some organizations, for instance, mobilized to aid sex workers and LGBTIAQ+ individuals who survived the earthquake, given their specific safety needs and vulnerability to phobic violence. 

Another example of addressing phobic violence pertains to the treatment of racialized groups. Some Syrian asylum seekers who reside in Turkey, for instance, reported not speaking up during search-and-rescue with the fear that they would be left there due to rampant anti-Arab racism. Those who were looting aid trucks were systematically depicted as Syrian asylum seekers on Turkish media, fueling public hate against them. As videos of police and military officials beating the looters circulated, the public celebrated that justice has been served, forgetting that it is the same brutality that is directed at us in Pride marches, May Day demonstrations, and Gezi protests. Mutual aid necessitates a consciousness that would not glamorize state violence and that would seek to practice solidarity with all marginalized groups. 

In the absence of proper state coordination, horizontal organizing and mutual aid have provided tremendous relief for the earthquake regions. At my university’s alumni foundation alone, thousands of supplies were packed and sent every day to these regions for weeks on end. Besides the activities of various international organizations, NGOs like Ahbap proved crucial not only for search-and-rescue efforts, but also for providing sustenance to the area. The point is not that these organizations could altogether compensate for the institutional betrayals of the state, but rather that mutual aid has provided a lifeline for the region that found itself in a bleak situation due to the state’s betrayal and failure. While we must hold the state accountable for these, we must at the same time continue to cultivate forms of anarchic organizing, which seek to operate beyond the confines of neoliberalism. If history is any indication, we know that the government will attempt to turn this crisis into profit, seeking to turn collapsed historical sites into hotels and five-star restaurants. In this sense, community organizing and mutual aid serves as more than a mere emergency measure; they are precisely what resistance to privatization and commitment to preserving community spaces will involve.

A quote by Victor Hugo circulated on social media after the earthquakes and reflects this difference between charity and mutual aid: “I do not want poverty to be relieved, I want it to be destroyed.” Having built its empire through the construction industry for two decades, these earthquakes have left the AKP government crumbling – winning the elections only delays the inevitable. It is time we rebuild.





Fulden İbrahimhakkıoğlu is an associate professor of philosophy at Middle East Technical University.

Article or Event LinkInstitutional Betrayal, Not Fate: Turkey-Syria Earthquakes PDF
Jul 5, 2023
Public Policy


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