Middle East Quarterly
Turkey's Political Earthquake
The dumplings at Joe's Shanghai, a wonderful dive hidden on a small street in the heart of New York's teeming Chinatown, have a cult following. They are made with a dollop of sauce inside, and you have to be careful how you eat them to avoid having the sauce spurt out as you bite. Nothing more serious than that was on my mind as I worked my way through dinner on a sticky summer evening. I took no special notice when the clock passed 8:11.
Half a world away, in Turkey, clocks at that moment read 3:11 a.m. Most people in the industrial boom towns of Izmit and Adapazafi and the seaside resorts of Golcuk and Yalova were sleeping as calmly as I was eating in New York. But that was the moment when a murderous terror, mean and hateful, ascended suddenly from the depths. The earth began to shake, and for forty-five seconds buildings swayed and fell. Millions of people awoke and fled onto the streets, where they stood and watched in horror as the air around them filled with dust and screams. Thousands were killed as they tried to escape. Many others, most of them elderly and devout, simply pulled blankets over their heads and waited for fate to take its cruel course.
Hours later on that awful day, August 17, 1999, I was at Kennedy Airport checking in for a flight back to Istanbul. A man passing by stopped and stared at the Turkish Airlines sign above the counter where I was waiting.
"My God," I heard him mutter to his companion. "Who would want to go to Turkey now?"
No one yet knew how serious the earthquake had been. Turkish news agencies were reporting a death toll in the hundreds and that was enough to cast a pall over the passengers on my flight, many of whom were Turks rushing home to search for friends and relatives. After we landed in Istanbul, I was waiting for my luggage when I noticed a young man ambling around the arrival lounge, carrying a clipboard and looking disoriented. He was sizing up passengers and approaching some of them. Soon it was my turn.
"Are you here for the earthquake?" he asked me. I was, of course, but it turned out that he was looking for relief workers. Rescue teams were already arriving, but evidently the authorities had no idea who they were, so the only way to find them was to grab them at the airport.
This was but a taste of what Turkey would live through over the next few days. Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit fell into a prolonged state of shock; instead of immediately jumping on a helicopter to survey the disaster area and then ordering his aides into action, he spent days telling whoever would listen that everything was under control and there was no need for concern. Army commanders who might have been expected to deploy thousands of soldiers to the stricken region also sat on their hands. Quickly it became clear that although Turkey lies above some of the world's most dangerous geological faults and is shaken by earthquakes every few years, its government had no plan for dealing with them, no disaster-relief agency, no civil-defense network, not even an official designated to take charge at such moments. In what seemed like a very cruel joke, the government's earthquake-relief fund was found to contain the equivalent of just four dollars and forty-five cents.
The quake's epicenter was barely fifty miles east of Istanbul's city limits, near the shore of a pretty bay at the edge of the Sea of Marmara, and it wrought death and destruction far greater than was first reported. In towns across the region whole blocks of buildings had collapsed, killing thousands instantly and trapping thousands more who died slowly while government officials stumbled aimlessly about, unable to grasp the dimensions of the catastrophe. Prime Minister Ecevit later sought to excuse the government's slow response by saying that roads were too clogged to allow rescue teams to reach devastated towns. Television teams had no such trouble, though, and soon all of Turkey was watching survivors clawing at the rubble with their bare hands and even fighting over shovels and the few available bulldozers. Most television stations dropped their normal programs and broadcast live, day and night, from the disaster zone. Turks by the millions were glued to their screens, watching scenes of heartrending devastation and suffering along with streams of interviews with enraged survivors, the intensity of whose anger was shocking in a country where exaggerated respect for the state has always been part of the national psychology.
Ecevit and the generals who ran Turkey with him finally responded, but only after a week, and even then they devoted most of their energy to blaming the press. One television station was ordered shut for seven days as punishment for broadcasting reports that vividly conveyed the chaos of the official rescue efforts. The top military commander, General Hüseyin Kivrikolu, called a handful of Turkish newspaper editors to his office and told them that the main problem had been not the relief effort but irresponsible journalists who emphasized its failures over its successes. He singled out five foreign correspondents as having been especially responsible for feeding these distortions to the world, myself among them, and charged that we had placed ourselves at the service of unnamed subversive "interests." Essentially, his complaint was that we had reported the truth without thinking of what effect it might have on the prestige of the Turkish state.
A Host of Horrors
Earthquake victims, meanwhile, faced a host of horrors. Survivors with loved ones buried beneath rubble bore the most painful burdens. For days, thousands of them could do nothing but sit helplessly before the piles of debris. Power shovels and other heavy equipment, much of it sent voluntarily by private companies, finally arrived in the ruined towns, but only after hopes of finding anyone alive had faded, and they were worked at a pace that survivors naturally found intolerably, heart-breakingly slow. Some nurtured hopes for days, but as time passed most accepted reality and waited only to claim bodies.
On the fifth morning after the quake, I sat among survivors who were maintaining a vigil in front of an apartment complex in the seaside town of Yalova, to which thousands of upwardly mobile Turks had moved in recent years, lured by the prospect of cheap apartments, fresh sea air, and proximity to Istanbul. A fifty-foot-high pile of rubble at which they gazed had once been a handsome apartment building. Giant yellow power shovels were clawing at it, ripping away floors and ceilings that had "pancaked" when the quake struck—fallen on top of one another as supporting walls collapsed, crushing scores of victims as they slept. Several bodies had already been pulled from the debris, and the stench that filled the hot, sticky air was a grim signal that more still lay entombed.
As the power shovels worked, the flotsam of dozens and dozens of human lives tumbled down through the dust—clothes, mattresses, bookshelves, carpets, a television, a washing machine, a radiator, a toilet, a set of the works of Balzac translated into Turkish. The roar of machines found an eerie counterpart in the absolute silence of onlookers, who fixed their gazes on this horrific scene as beads of sweat dripped down their faces.
Shortly before noon, one group of workers cried out. A shovel had broken into a bedroom and they could see a body inside. The big machine backed away, and workers began to pull away slabs of concrete by hand. Half an hour later they freed the bloated body of a young woman, wrapped it in a blanket, zipped it into a green plastic bag, and carried it to a waiting ambulance, which sped away with its siren blaring.
A few minutes later one man sitting near me began to turn pale and breathe heavily. He broke into sobs and then suddenly started screaming "Thirteen years old!" he shouted. "Buried under there! Just a baby! Just thirteen!" With both his hands, he began violently ripping up the grass around him. Relief workers trying to comfort him, wiped his brow with wet cloths and managed to calm him after a while, but he refused to be led away, preferring to maintain his awful watch.
What made this hellish scene so especially and outrageously tragic was that all around stood buildings that had been damaged either lightly or not at all. These were structures that had been built by responsible contractors using decent materials, and the people who lived in them had survived unhurt while their neighbors had been horribly crushed to death in their beds. Earthquakes are often described as natural disasters, but seismologists like to say that it is buildings that kill people, not the quakes themselves. So it was here. The victims cursed not just the violent earth beneath their feet but also builders like Veli Göçer, who had built the collapsed edifice before which I spent that Sunday.
Lynch mobs tried to find Göçer in the days that followed the quake, but, like other contractors whose buildings had become tombs, he had disappeared. A week later he spoke by telephone with a German newspaper. "There's no reason for me to have a guilty conscience," he said. "Naturally I sympathize with the victims and their families. But I don't understand why they're making me into a scapegoat. I started building the Bahçekent complex in Yalova about six years ago. Naturally I didn't have any idea about construction. I studied literature in school. I'm a poet, not a structural engineer. I remember visiting my first construction site. I saw workers using beach sand to make concrete. When I asked about it, the architects told me that this was completely normal. Only later did I learn that this is a completely wrong and dangerous technique. So I ordered a stop to that disgusting practice. Unfortunately half the complex was already finished."
Several days later Göçer was arrested at a house in Istanbul where he had been hiding. More than a dozen other contractors had already been jailed pending investigations, but Göçer, whom the press had branded as "the contractor of death," was the particular focus of public outrage. Three lines of police officers surrounded the station where he was booked, and when he was brought to prison he had to be isolated to protect him from other inmates, several of whom swore to kill him at the first opportunity.
For weeks after the earthquake, much of northwestern Turkey continued to be shaken by aftershocks, some of which qualified as small quakes in their own right. Dozens of people were injured as they jumped from shaking buildings. In Adapazari, a town that had been heavily damaged on the first day, a woman died of a heart attack as she rushed from a building she thought was about to collapse. This panic reflected something beyond the culture of exaggeration that traditionally leads Turks to dramatize imminent perils. It showed how unsettled they had become, how deeply their collective psyche had been wounded by the shock of the August 17 disaster and the state's inability to cope with it.
This Disaster No Distraction
Among journalists it is a truism that covering natural disasters is a colossal waste of time. They take a heavy emotional toll because they force us to confront horrible tragedies, but in essence they are alike; even the most pitiful stories about children dying and families being decimated are almost identical. Worst of all, in the larger scheme of things disasters mean nothing. When the earth stops shaking or the floodwaters recede or the flames are extinguished, people pick up what remains of their lives and go on as best they can. For those interested in the fate of nations, disasters are only distractions.
The Turkish earthquake, however, shattered that cliché just as completely as it devastated towns, cities, and human lives. Few natural disasters in modern history have had such a profound political, social, and cultural effect. Some Turkish intellectuals went so far as to suggest that when the history of the Turkish Republic is written years or centuries from now, it will be divided into two periods, pre-earthquake and post-earthquake. The quake led millions of Turks to question institutions they had never questioned before and to accept the necessity of changes they had resisted for years. Survivors saw that thousands had died needlessly—been murdered, some said—because their homes had been built with materials and construction techniques that could not withstand a quake. They knew without being told that this was not simply the fault of contractors like the wretched Veli Göçer but the result of a political system that tolerated corruption and contempt for human life. The self-perpetuating Turkish elite that calls itself "the state" had maintained itself for generations by the fiction that it alone could guarantee people's safety and security. But when the quake struck, this vaunted "state" was nowhere to be seen. Now it blazed in people's consciousness as the institution that allowed unscrupulous contractors to build big housing developments directly above one of the world's most active fault lines.
A flood of images conveyed the Turkish state's failures. Among the most memorable were of the white-faced prime minister Ecevit, spending the post-earthquake period wandering around as if in a daze; military rescue workers racing frantically to dig out officers lying under the debris of a naval base while ignoring the plight of anguished civilians outside the gates; the florid president Demirel visiting devastated towns after a very long delay, a trip that turned into a fiasco because all roads in and out of the area were closed to traffic, including relief convoys, for hours before and after his tour, every moment of delay meaning that more trapped victims were dying awful deaths beneath the rubble. No one realized this more than survivors, whose anguish quickly turned to outrage at the institutions they had long considered sacred. When Demirel finally acknowledged the government's failings but warned that "the state is an institution you cannot replace with anything else," he sounded as if he were speaking from another planet.
The official who dominated most news reports in those days was not the president, prime minister, or military chief of staff. He was one Osman Durmu_, an obscure politician who since the formation of Ecevit's government a few months earlier had been minister of health. Since taking office he had concentrated mainly on the quiet work of dismissing bureaucrats and hospital administrators so that they could be replaced by cronies from his far-right political party, Nationalist Action. Then, in the days after the quake, he showed himself to be one of those narrow-minded nationalists who have done so much over so many years to keep Turkey locked inside its fantasy-world shell. First he declared that Turkey needed no foreign aid for earthquake relief because it could handle everything perfectly well by itself. Then he said that even if aid was accepted, none should come from Armenia; that earthquake victims should be especially careful to refuse any blood sent from Greece; and that there was no need for portable toilets in the devastated region because many mosques had sanitary facilities, and anyway the Sea of Marmara was close by. These comments provoked a fury, including calls for his resignation, but he proudly stayed in office. No senior figure reprimanded him. The closest he came to an apology was to concede that if he were one day on the edge of death, he would be willing to accept blood from a Greek or Armenian donor.
Durmu_'s mindless and extreme chauvinism did not represent the feelings of most government leaders. But along with many other examples, it conveyed the impression of a government and "state" that were hopelessly out of touch with the needs of its restive people. The earthquake showed Turks that something was fundamentally wrong with the way their nation and political system had developed since the end of military rule in 1983.
Until then, Turks had suffocated under a host of restrictive laws and regulations that effectively cut them off from the world but also insulated their country against corruption. National leaders valued propriety above economic growth, and most ordinary people followed their example. That changed with the emergence of Turgut Özal, a towering political figure and the most revolutionary leader Turkey had seen since Atatürk. As prime minister from 1983 to 1989 and then as president until his death two years later, Özal lifted hundreds of restrictive rules and urged Turks to ignore those he could not repeal, freeing what proved to be the enormous energies of Turkish entrepreneurs. Within a very few years of his rise to power, this profoundly important campaign brought Turkey into the international mainstream. But as Özal urged Turks to free themselves from the outmoded rules that had held them back for so long, he also sent a not-so-subtle message that rules in general were bad. Some ambitious Turks understood him to mean that getting rich was so important that it didn't matter how one accomplished it.
What sort of business could an unschooled and capital-poor Turk launch that would put him on the road to wealth? Hundreds chose to start construction companies, relying on the help of friends in local politics to win contracts. In a wide-open economy that was growing at dizzying rates, many of these do-it-yourself contractors quickly became rich. The price Turkey paid for their rapid rise to wealth became tragically clear when the earthquake turned many of the apartment blocks they had built into tombs.
Anger at the "Daddy State"
If the anger that Turks felt had been directed only at contractors and the inspectors they bribed, if the tragedies of the earthquake had been seen as isolated failures, all might slowly have been forgotten, and the country might have returned to its old ways. Instead, a new dawn seemed to burst over the country. People of every social class and political persuasion began to understand how dangerous it was to build a country on a social system in which everything is negotiable and devlet baba—"daddy state"—is always presumed to know best.
Respect for the state had begun to crumble with the Susurluk scandal in 1996, though with great effort military commanders and political godfathers had managed to put the lid on it before the full truth could emerge. Now they tried frantically to cover up their failures in the earthquake relief effort. General Kivrikolu went so far as to demand names of journalists who were not writing glowingly enough about the army's work. But these efforts were fruitless because the relief effort, or what passed for one, had unfolded in full view of an already dubious public. Visceral and intense disgust sparked a civil uprising unlike anything modern Turkey had ever experienced.
Turks correctly saw the state's failure as the logical and even inevitable result of a system in which human life had always been considered a low priority. They learned that the state's traditional relief agency, Kizilay, a local branch of the Red Cross-Red Crescent, had become a dumping ground for incompetent and greedy hacks who spent their budget mainly on lavish trips and stays in luxury hotels. The few tattered old tents it scrounged up when the quake struck quickly become symbols of the government's incompetence and apparent callousness.
While wandering through a waterfront park where several hundred homeless earthquake survivors were living in leaky Kizilay tents, I met a carpenter who told me he had drawn a moral from all this. "I worked as a laborer in Europe, and later I lived in Israel for eighteen months," he said. "That's where I realized that in other countries, protecting human life comes before anything. We don't think like that here. If our leaders cared about human life, they would have been ready for this earthquake, but it just isn't a priority for them. That's the main thing that has to change here."
The superb performance of private rescue and relief groups that raced to the earthquake zone to help victims only increased the anger at the state's failure. Twelve hours after the quake struck, a group of mountain climbers and practitioners of extreme sports who had banded together into an emergency-response team were already digging victims out of the rubble, and private charities and individuals were distributing food and blankets to the homeless. They were hard at work while government officials were still giving interviews claiming that their relief columns could not move along jammed or ruined roads to the devastated area. Politicians and generals in Ankara quickly realized that earthquake victims were becoming grateful to the wrong people. They responded by forbidding several religious charities from collecting or distributing relief aid, by urging donors to send their cash only to Kizilay or to an official fund at a government-owned bank, and finally by trying to require private groups to transfer their aid to the army so that it could be distributed by soldiers. The cynicism of these maneuvers only emphasized the state's moral blindness.
To this day no one can say with even remote certainty how many people perished in the 1999 earthquake. The authorities stopped counting when they reached eighteen thousand, but thousands more were probably washed into the sea or bulldozed away with wreckage. No definitive list of the dead was ever drawn up.
Even before the pain of the tragedy had faded, another complex of emotions surged across Turkey, beginning with outrage at the government but then moving on to jubilant self-discovery. The generous and effective actions of ordinary people and private groups made millions of Turks realize, many for the first time, that they could take responsibility for their own lives and collective future without guidance from above. This realization introduced a genuine democratic consciousness, not through lectures or theoretical instruction but by events immediately and viscerally assimilated. It thrilled intellectuals and other reform-minded Turks who had been driven to despair by years of frustration and disappointment.
Private television stations, which Turgut Özal had legalized barely a decade before, rushed to offer exhaustive coverage from the devastated region, broadcasting unforgettable images that made the state's failures undeniable and also gave voice to hundreds of angry survivors whose words were heavy with emotion. Many, weeping openly on camera, talked of friends or relatives still alive under the rubble. The most commonly repeated cries of frustration were "Devlet nerede?" and "Asker nerede?" Where is the state? Where is the army?
The failure of the army, supposedly Turkey's indispensable institution, was a special shock. In the wake of this disaster, it was nowhere to be seen. Ecevit did not summon it to action and its own commanders did not volunteer troops. Tens of thousands of soldiers who were garrisoned within a few hours' ride of the earthquake zone were not moved from their barracks for days. When they finally did show up in ruined towns, most were assigned to provide security and distribute goods rather than help with rescue efforts. How could this institution defend the state if it was unable to protect the lives of Turkish citizens? The Susurluk scandal had shown that the state's priority was to guard an established order, not to serve individuals, and now it was displaying the same impulses in the earthquake-relief operation.
Had the quake devastated a remote Kurdish city like Erzincan, where Turkey's worst quake of the century hit in 1939, it might not have struck such a raw nerve. But this one destroyed densely populated towns just a short ferry ride from Istanbul, towns that were built around factories owned by people in Istanbul, towns where Istanbul residents went on their vacations. Millions of ordinary people in the Istanbul area lost friends or relatives, and thousands of them rushed to the region on the first day to try to help. The middle class led the civic uprising that followed, an uprising that was in some ways as shattering as the earthquake itself.
Perhaps the greatest surprise of all was people's response to the work of foreign relief agencies, whose energy and resourcefulness posed such a stark contrast to the Turkish government's paralysis. Teams from abroad appeared almost immediately, flying from their homelands, making their way to devastated towns and setting to work while the Turkish authorities were still lost in slumber. For generations Turks had been taught to believe that they were surrounded by enemies, that at every moment evil forces were plotting against them and their nation. But if more than seventy countries sent rescue and relief workers who saved victims who otherwise would have perished, how could it be true that, as nationalists had long asserted, "The only friend of the Turk is the Turk"?
The Turks' perception of Greece changed most vividly and remarkably, wiping away generations of resentment in a matter of days. Several months before, following the scandal that surrounded the capture of Abdullah Öcalan, Greek leaders had rid their government of Turk-haters. Now, on the very day of the quake, the quick-witted Greek foreign minister George Papandreou telephoned his Turkish counterpart, Ismail Cem, to offer whatever help Turkey needed, and then rapidly sent rescue workers, ships, and planes loaded with relief supplies and streams of messages pledging solidarity with the victims. Even more important, Greek television crews rushed to the ruins and began broadcasting live. Countless Greeks shared the grief of parents whose families had been destroyed, the suffering of those who waited tearfully for rescue workers to find their loved ones, and the exhilaration of watching victims being pulled alive from the rubble. This was a deeply intimate experience that shook Greeks to their emotional core.
Then, only twenty-seven days later, an earthquake struck in Greece—a smaller one, but powerful enough to give Turks and Greeks a sense of shared fate. Now it was Turkish volunteers who flew to the rescue, and clever Greek officials directed them to help in places where they knew victims were alive and could be helped. Televised pictures of Turks saving the lives of Greek children melted hearts on both sides of the Aegean. Soon the two nations, caught up for years in senseless animosity, found themselves embracing each other with the fervor of lovers who realize they have been separated far too long.
Subscribe to the MEF Mailing List
Latest Press Releases
Latest MEQ Articles