After a week of rising death tolls in Turkey and Syria, we're left with the politics of long term recovery, and other human fault lines.
After a week of rescue efforts in Turkey and Syria, the death counts are still rising from a 7.8 magnitude earthquake and over 125 aftershocks, including an M6.7 in close succession to the first hit, and an M7.7 nine hours later. Each on their own would have been devastating. Together, they’ve stretched old and poorly built infrastructure to ruinous breaking points. At present, the death count sits at nearly 24,000, with over 20,200 in Turkey and over 3,500 in Syria, where UN official Sivanka Dhanapala estimates that up to 5.3 million might be homeless as a result. In Turkey, tens of thousands are unhoused in winter conditions, while rescue efforts continue in dwindling hope of further survivors.
But simply watching death counts rise can distract and desensitize us, which is why we’ve also been fortunate to receive so many tales of people dug out of the debris over four days later, along with painful narratives of familial loss. Both matter because they serve to humanize distant hardships, for a species that tends to empathize best with singular cases of struggle. The father holding the hand of his crushed daughter, her body still in the rubble. The newborn delivered, and surviving, in a collapse that killed all immediate family. The older sister promising to be the “servant” of anyone who pulled her and her brother free. The workers crying “Allahu akbar!” in relief when they found a living child saved by his dead father’s protection. The tenderness of rescuers carrying out a dazed little boy who greeted them “Good morning!”. The young man asking workers to save his cat before himself.
Such stories mitigate the crushing loss also felt by rescue workers in such crises, when faced with body after unresponsive, shattered body: the dead grandparents, children, and beloved neighbors who lie covered in the streets and on open lots, overwhelming cemeteries and compelling the construction of mass graves.
And they help us to remember what we share with global demographics usually only referenced in abstract totalities, in the middle of armchair politicking about war, dictatorships, and life in other religious contexts.
It’s from such reporting, too, that greater leverage for our work as humanists arises.
Because just as critical this week has been political response not only to the immediate crises in Turkey and Syria, but also to the work needed in these regions going forward. An earthquake is generally speaking a natural event—but its full casualty count is always a test of our humanity. How are we doing, thus far?
The complexity of international aid
Over 70 countries have stepped up with aid, in the form of rescue workers and related support teams, along with funding and emergency supplies. But actually getting these resources to every high need region hasn’t been easy.
Next week, the UN Security Council will meet in part to decide whether aid can travel to northwest Syria through more than one Turkish crossing. Many of the most afflicted in Syria by this earthquake were already living between a rock and a hard place, displaced into land held by forces fighting Syria’s dictatorial president, Bashar al-Assad. Russia holds a veto vote on the Security Council, is allied with Assad, and for obvious strategic reasons (related to fears of Western encroachment) has already made clear that it doesn’t see further aid routes as necessary.
On Friday, Syria’s government finally approved aid delivery to rebel-held regions, and identified Latakia, Hama, Aleppo, and Idlib as disaster zones slated for state-sponsored reconstruction. If that timeline seems sluggish, though, it absolutely is: planeloads of aid had been pouring into Syria since Monday, but very little of it left government-controlled territory for the hardest hit regions all week.
If earthquake victims in the northwest have any “silver lining” here, it’s that precisely because so many Syrians were already living in refugee encampments, fewer were trapped under collapsed buildings when the earthquake and its aftershocks devastated the region. Both southeastern Turkey and northwestern Syria are home to high levels of displaced peoples, many of whom have had to move multiple times for any chance at long term rest, which never seems to arrive.
Despite the resilience brought on by preceding trauma, though, the need for basic necessities—food, water, medical care, fuel, and shelter—remains high. Syria in particular had already been placed on the International Rescue Committee’s 2023 watchlist months prior to this earthquake. Its country’s citizens, especially in the northwest, face another extremely difficult year ahead.
Meanwhile, in Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his autocratic government have also incurred sharp criticism for state actions leading up to and in response to Monday’s earthquake. Erdoğan has in the past referred to local events with high death counts as a matter of “fate”. This kind of nebulous language entirely sidesteps the government’s complicity, which in this case includes its corrupt and shoddy construction projects, which severely set back regional readiness efforts in the middle of our increasingly disaster-ridden world.
The bitter irony here is that Erdoğan rose to power on the back of public outrage over another government’s insufficient response to tragedy, the 1999 İzmit earthquake which killed over 1,000 and injured another 5,000. It was on that wave of public outcry that his party, the AKP, gained office and launched 20 years of state-driven construction projects. Many of those buildings were flattened in Monday’s earthquake: a testament to poor design and implementation. Worse still, Turkish funds expressly earmarked for natural disasters had been redirected into highway projects managed by allies of Erdoğan and his coalition government.
Aid efforts were also expressly limited by Erdoğan’s government on Monday, when it throttled access to social media like Twitter, under the pretense of fighting “disinformation” at a time when communication is critical to early search and rescue.
Doing better, if we can
There are many fault lines in our fragile world. Strictly speaking, the quakes on Monday were the result of a tectonic plate that houses the Arabian Peninsula heading north, and driving Turkey further west. But the fractures these quakes revealed, in terms of human care and political interest in collective welfare, run deep as well.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and its support of Assad’s government, have added to the complexity of coming together as a species around immediate civilian need. So too has Turkey’s long history of state corruption under an autocratic leader.
And yet, as much as affectations of nation-state division separate us, disasters such as these allow us to remember our shared humanity differently. Many in our family of eight billion are now facing monumental challenges—displaced, despairing, at high risk of hunger, predation, and disease. Nor will they be the last, in 2023.
How will we rise to the call to help each other now?