Tens of Thousands Still Under the Rubble as Death Toll Climbs: Fate Has Nothing to Do with It

1476

Originally published February 10 at internationalsocialist.net.

Multi-story buildings standing next to pulverized ones. A father holding his dead daughter’s hand, as her body, still lying on her mattress, is stuck in between layers of concrete. Small children in the cold rain crying for their missing parents. Desperate survivors going through the rubble with their bare hands in search of signs of life. The scenes of the aftermath of the 7.8 and 7.6 magnitude earthquakes that struck wide swathes of Turkey, Syria, and Kurdistan in the early morning of Monday, compounded by hundreds of aftershocks, are harrowing.

At the time of writing, the death toll has already surpassed 21,000 and is climbing every second; the final toll is likely to be way higher, as tens of thousands are still unaccounted for, trapped under the rubble, and the window of time to find them alive is closing in. As the areas affected in Syria are mostly war zones split between Bashar al-Assad regime, Islamist armed groups like Hayat Tahrir al Sham, and some Kurdish enclaves, the official death toll on the Syrian side is also unreliably approximate.

Tens of thousands of people have been injured, and millions left without homes trying to survive in subzero winter temperatures, often with no access to electricity, gas, clean water, or food. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that as many as 23 million people have been directly impacted by the earthquakes. This includes millions of Syrian refugees who very often lived in cramped housing conditions in the earthquake-stricken areas of Turkey, after having been forced to flee their homes in search of safety.

Mixed with grief and despair, rage is mounting at the authorities on both sides of the border for their responsibility and appalling response to the disaster. “Everyone is getting angrier by the minute” according to a man from Sarmada, a town in Syria’s Idlib province, as people have been left to fend for themselves. In most areas of Turkey, no rescue team arrived during the first, critical 24 hours after the quakes; in some areas, this still appeared to be the case three days later. “People revolted (on Tuesday) morning. The police had to intervene,” recounted a 61-year-old survivor from the Turkish city of Gaziantep quoted by AFP news agency. Protests by earthquake victims have since been reported in some badly affected localities, like in Adıyaman and in Ordu.

The country’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has blamed the delays on the damaged roads and airports; but that serves only to hide his regime’s own culpability in this situation. Hatay Airport, whose runway has been split into two and made unusable by the earthquakes, was built on the Amik Plain, a tectonically active area, despite repeated warnings from environmental activists and protests by local residents.

After a massive earthquake struck northwestern Turkey in 1999, an “earthquake tax” was introduced, supposedly to develop disaster prevention and emergency services and avoid similar tragedies in the future. But no one fully knows where that money went, and notwithstanding the tireless efforts of rescue workers, it is obvious that the state itself was awfully unprepared, despite the region being a prime candidate for seismic events of that type. “Where is the state?” is a question on many people’s lips, as devastated communities, already living in some of the poorest parts of the country, have been left struggling without decent equipment or support. To add insult to injury, volunteering individuals, civil society organizations, aid groups, and assistance from opposition-run cities were also prevented from getting involved in the rescue efforts because of bureaucratic hurdles imposed on them by AKP government officials.

Erdoğan has since accepted that there had been “shortcomings” in the initial stages of the response, adding that the situation was now “under control.” But it is precisely in the initial stages that most lives could have been saved if proper preparation and planning, along with adequate resources, had been in place.

Corporate Profiteering at the Heart of the Problem

Erdoğan has blamed “fate’s plan” for the scale of the disaster. Although Monday’s earthquakes were the most powerful in the region since 1939, the scale of human and material destruction has nothing to do with fate, nor is it natural.

“In the study of geohazards we have a saying, which is that earthquakes don’t really kill people — buildings do”

said Carmia Schoeman, master’s degree holder in landslide geology, and member of WASP (ISA in South Africa). She explains:

“Although large earthquakes are expected in this region due to its geologic setting on the Anatolian Fault System, the scale of tragedy these events cause is almost entirely man-made. For many decades the science and technology has existed to not only predict the areas that would be worst hit by such events, but also how to minimize the damage caused through earthquake-proof construction of buildings”.

Experts concur indeed to say that properly constructed buildings would have been able to resist the shock. According to David Alexander, Professor of Emergency Planning and Management at University College London,

“out of the thousands of buildings that collapsed, almost all of them don’t stand up to any reasonably expected earthquake construction code.”

After the 1999 disaster, Turkey introduced new building regulations for earthquake zones. But these regulations were at best very laxly enforced, at worst ignored entirely, while older buildings were not retrofitted to match the new standards. A regime-backed building boom saw the proliferation of large residential projects that were often delivered with sub-par material and without proper quality control, so as to maximize financial returns for a few top real estate companies with tight bonds to the ruling party.

This building spree, facilitated by huge state support and greased by large-scale corruption to circumvent the rules, became a cash cow for these regime-allied businesses. The construction and renovation of many public buildings like hospitals, schools, post offices, administrative buildings, etc., were also subcontracted to these private cronies via state tenders under the AKP government. While such buildings should have provided safety to the public in case of disaster, they were among the first to collapse —including the headquarters of Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) in Hatay.

The criminal policies of the government in this matter went as far as periodically providing “construction amnesties” — i.e., a retroactive legal cover given in exchange for a fee for structures that were built without the required safety licenses. Just a few days before the latest earthquakes, a new draft law was even awaiting parliamentary approval to grant further amnesty for recent construction work. In short, as millions of people were about to see their lives shattered, the Turkish government was busy providing its billionaire friends with what effectively amounts to a bribed license to kill for profit.

Regime Silences Critical Voices

On top of failing to provide a competent response to the disaster, Erdoğan’s regime is spending precious state resources, time, and efforts to crack down on those criticizing its management of the crisis. Nervousness is gripping the regime at the prospect that people’s anger —already at loggerheads because of a soaring economic crisis and one of the highest inflation levels in the world— crystallizes into something that could overturn its rule, as the country is approaching presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled on May 14th. In these conditions the earthquakes might be used as a reason to postpone or cancel the vote.

On Tuesday the President announced a three-month state of emergency in ten cities affected by the earthquakes. This gives sweeping powers to the police and allows for the banning of public assemblies and protests. Several reports attest to the arrests and intimidation of independent journalists covering the aftermath of the disaster, particularly when reporting on the lack of rescuers. An Istanbul state prosecutor initiated a criminal investigation into two journalists who voiced criticisms of the state’s response. Twitter access was also restricted amid people’s outrage splashing online. The Turkish police acknowledged that many arrests were made following “provocative posts” about the quakes on social media.

This new round of attacks on democratic rights is in line with the regime’s pre-earthquake authoritarian policies, which have themselves contributed to crippling the country’s capacity to handle a humanitarian disaster of such a scale. For example, doctors and their unions, which have a vital role to play in the current situation, have been at the receiving end of the regime’s political witch-hunt in recent years, notably for their role in denouncing the state’s military operations against the Kurdish population of Syria.

Syria: Earthquake Effects Amplified by War and Geopolitical Clashes

But the callousness and cynicism of the ruling classes doesn’t stop here. On February 7th, Turkish armed forces bombed homes in the Kurdish majority and earthquake-affected district of Tel Rifaat in Northern Syria, before people could even remove the debris from the quakes. The Syrian army also bombed opposition-held areas hit by the earthquakes barely a few hours after the disaster.

Twelve years of war in Syria, fueled by Assad’s regime as well as multi-sided imperialist interventions, had already left the country’s infrastructure and people’s housing conditions in tatters. According to a 2017 report by the World Bank, nearly one-third of the homes in Aleppo and Idlib had already been damaged or destroyed by the war. 70% of the population was in need of aid and 2.9 million were at risk of starvation across the country even before the earthquakes made a horrific situation compellingly worse. Millions of Syrians were displaced multiple times by the war and now, many more will be displaced by this disaster.

Almost immediately after the earthquakes hit, several Western governments mobilized aid and rescue teams to Turkey; but they offered very little or nothing to Syria, because of their conflictual relationship with Assad’s regime. Victims of the earthquakes are paying the price of the ongoing power struggle between Western imperialism and the Syrian dictatorship; both are playing with people’s lives to boost their power and prestige. U.S.-imposed economic sanctions impede the shipment of aid to the affected zones, whereas the regime itself is holding aid to rebel-controlled areas. Systemic corruption and price-gouging across the board are corroding further the chances of meaningful humanitarian assistance, an additional reason why the collecting and distribution of emergency relief cannot be left in the hands of reactionary forces and corrupt parties; by electing their own committees, people could strive to take up and coordinate these tasks by themselves, based on real needs.

Cascading Disaster

A new layer of disaster will now predictably add on to the immediate effects of the earthquakes. People who haven’t died from being stuck under the rubble are threatened by the cold, hunger, and the potential spread of diseases. Besides, as illustrated by a dam collapse in Syria’s Idlib province on Thursday, further harmful accidents are bound to develop out of the current situation.

“Unfortunately, it’s highly likely that we will see many more events of devastation in the next days triggered by this earthquake, including landslides, sinkholes, several aftershocks, and tsunamis. In turn this can cause major damage to infrastructure, housing, and livelihoods”

Carmia comments.

“The US Geological Survey for example has a map that predicts the most likely areas to expect landslides after this earthquake, and so emergency services should ensure the people living there are evacuated. But the ability to predict and react to these events is severely undermined by the lack of funding to basic emergency response systems at one end, and capitalism’s insatiable need to develop profitable real estate at the other. While governments leave housing up to the private sector who consistently cut corners in construction quality and upholding building codes, working class people are forced into cramped conditions in urban centres in order to find jobs to survive. With no planning around the inevitable natural events like earthquakes, we are left with tragic and chaotic scenes of absolute devastation. The science of predicting effects of geohazards like earthquakes is simply not profitable in the short term, and neither is investment in emergency response systems.”

On so many levels, this tragedy epitomizes the utterly dysfunctional and barbaric nature of capitalism. As it always happens in this type of mega-disasters, big corporations are also rubbing their hands in greed while contemplating the opportunities to profit from people’s misery and death —from cement companies seeing their shares jump on the stock exchange just after the earthquakes, to some Western banks overcharging customers to transfer money to Turkey.

In contrast though, scores of volunteers everywhere have rushed to help extract people from the rubble, donate blood, or collect basic necessities to assist survivors. This instinctive solidarity from working class people provides the seeds out of which, beyond the urgent assistance required to save lives, a movement could grow to demand justice for the numerous and largely preventable victims of this disaster. But also to fight for a new society, one that puts people’s lives and safety at its core instead of profit accumulation for a tiny few, to make sure that such horrors never happen again.

ISA demands:

  • Hotels, public buildings and empty properties, after safety checks, to be requisitioned to shelter those left homeless;
  • The immediate evacuation of communities in areas identified as high risk for aftershocks and landslides;
  • A state housing provision and decent compensation for all the victims of the disaster;
  • The lifting of all sanctions on Syria, the immediate end of all bombings and the bringing of all Turkish troops back home;
  • The opening of all border crossings into Syria to facilitate humanitarian convoys;
  • The formation of local rescue and aid committees, democratically controlled by workers and local residents, to ensure the democratic and coordinated provision of basic necessities and organization of rescue efforts, and prevent the corruption of relief supplies;
  • Full disclosure over the use of the funds collected through Turkey’s “earthquake tax”;
  • The immediate expropriation, under democratic workers’ control, of the “Gang of Five”, i.e., the five Turkish construction firms that have won nearly all the large public tenders under the AKP regime and have made mountains of profit by gambling on people’s lives and safety. Use their wealth to finance assistance to the millions in need in the affected areas;
  • An independent investigation into the disaster to identify all responsible, in the state and in the private sector, and make them accountable for their crimes. This investigation could be led by representatives of the victims’ families, residents, scientists and workers’ unions;
  • Don’t let big businesses profit from the disaster. Bring food, water and energy supply under public ownership. For a public emergency house rebuilding plan, based on earthquake-proof techniques and respectful of the environment, democratically overseen by scientists, workers and residents from the affected communities;
  • Erdoğan and Assad have blood on their hands, they must go! For the building of a united working-class movement and a socialist alternative to dictatorship, war, and capitalism.