Meet the scapegoats of the earthquake in Turkey

Image by Andrea De Santis. Free to use under Unsplash License

Each time a tragedy, like the February 6 earthquake, hits Turkey, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) resorts to an all too common language — it is fate. Taking responsibility for its actions was never AKP's forte. In its 20 years of leadership, there have been only a handful of exceptions, where officials handed in their resignations over the ruling government's mistakes. In short, there is always someone else to blame or hold accountable.

If not for massive public outcry following the earthquake, the ruling government might never have publicly acknowledged their mishandling of the earthquake response. But even then, the state blamed the massive scale of the disaster for the delays in the dispatch of search and rescue missions, rather than a lack of state preparedness or emergency measures.

But while the state was searching for scapegoats and focusing on face-saving measures, Turks from all walks of life were busy mobilizing across the country, raising donations, collecting essential goods for the victims, coordinating transport and aid, sharing endless lists of still much-needed supplies like tents, flash lights, baby formula, hygienic kits, and more.

Among them were rock stars, actors, singers, and countless volunteers. But they too have been targeted by the ruling party and those affiliated with them. Rather than uniting the country and its people after this tragedy, the ruling government has yet again, resorted to division and enmity.

The most recent example occurred in Pazarcik, a town and a district in the southern part of Kahramanmaraş Province, which was at the epicenter of the earthquake. According to reports, the local governorship seized the donated goods at the Crisis Coordination Center, informing the team of volunteers working at the center that the State Disaster and Emergency Authority (AFAD) was in charge.

In an interview with Turkish online newspaper Evrensel, Yurdagül Cabat who heads the Ankara branch of Eğitim-Sen, a left-wing trade union consisting of teachers and other education workers, one of the groups helping to distribute aid, Cabat said, “The governor of Pazarcik showed up here with soldiers and seized the aid collected for distribution. They told us we were no longer allowed to help with aid.”

Many criticized the takeover, including, The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) which has been part of the coordination efforts. According to reporting by BirGun newspaper, HDP co-chair Pervin Buldan in a statement:

They are preventing the assistance campaign by HDP. Those who were absent since the beginning of the earthquake, especially in the first days, who did not bring aid to our people in any way, started an initiative to prevent the aid that has already been collected.

Scapegoats and oversights

There were plenty of other scapegoats to target too, including Oğuzhan Uğur, a musician, script writer, director, and presenter of the popular show “Topics: Open Microphone” via his Babala TV, YouTube channel. The show features prominent politicians speaking with audience members and answering their questions. Since the day of the earthquake, Uğur and his team have been collecting funds to cover the essential needs of the earthquake-hit provinces — tents, generators, machinery required for removing the rubble, medical supplies, and much more. He has also raised TRY 29 million (USD 1,537,000) in cash donations which Uğur has donated to Ahbap, a local non-governmental initiative founded by Haluk Levent, a Turkish rockstar.

The duo was heavily criticized by the ruling party officials as well as the members of the nationalist (MH) party. Among them was Birol Gür, former MHP Istanbul Provincial Chairman who resigned from his post in December last year. Gür urged people to donate to AFAD rather than Ahbap and Uğur, saying “there are concerns whether the raised funds reach those affected by the earthquake.”

Ahbap's website was also subject to DDoS attacks — attempts to block it from public use.

AK Party Kırşehir Provincial Board Member Berk Can Doğan, targeting Levent and Uğur, wrote, “The labor and sweat of tens of thousands of volunteers should not be fed to these two.” Doğan also said in the following tweets that the aid campaigns started by Ahbap and Bababala TV founder Uğur were discrediting the reputation of state-funded aid.

However, the next day Doğan said after the reactions to his tweet, he went to Ahbap's website and saw that the organization has been collaborating with AFAD for a long time now. “Even though I used some bad expressions in my angry state yesterday, I had no such intention,” tweeted Doğan.

Turgay Güler, a journalist, affiliated with the ruling AK party went on a diatribe on television accusing YouTubers, social media persons, and others of turning the earthquake into a PR platform. Speaking on Ulke TV channel, where Güler is also a host, the journalist accused them of sharing misinformation, destroying the earthquake areas, and calling them “carrion crows.” At some point, a breathless Güler, exclaimed that these individuals and organizations were incapable of managing large sums of money. And yet, neither Güler, nor other guests on the show, cared to explain where the money collected by the state under the earthquake tax was nor how it was spent or managed for the last twenty years.

On February 14, the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party Devlet Bahçeli targeted both Levent and Uğur's efforts at the party's cabinet meeting. Calling them vultures, Bahçeli lashed at non-state aid, accusing those involved of “overshadowing the credibility of the state.”

None of these statements however deterred Levent or Uğur. In a tweet following Bahçeli's remarks, Haluk Levent said, “Just yesterday, members of MHP visited our tent city. I think Bahçeli's advisers are misinforming him. Every day I work with state institutions and write about it. We cannot succeed if we don't work together anyway.”

Meanwhile, the leader of opposition CH party Kemal tweeted in support of local aid campaigns including Ahbap while criticizing lack of coordination on behalf of the government:

Instead of slandering Ahbap, provide assistance-distribution coordination. The blackmail campaign that you have started, only hurts those affected by the earthquake, enough with this nonsense. Don't even think about taking over institutions built by the people. Don't trip those running to people's help.

Due to a lack of trust in state institutions and a history of the state mismanaging its budget, many citizens chose to donate to local civil society groups and charities, like Ahbap and Oguzhan Ugur's fundraising campaigns.

Attacks on refugees and minorities

There were other scapegoats too, like the refugees and other minorities who have been targeted with hate speech and physical violence. In a statement issued by the Progressive Lawyers’ Association on February 13, the group said they have launched criminal complaints against all suspects who have targeted the immigrants in the earthquake area. On February 15, the group also said in a tweet that they have requested an access ban for images of violence in the earthquake region, especially torture.

While the state has spared those who sign under the construction licenses, auditing firms, and the lawmakers who have passed building amnesties legislation — a regulation that legalized previously illegal constructions, the most recent was passed in 2018 — construction developers have been targeted. So far, 134 have been arrested.

Days prior to the earthquake the parliament was set to vote on yet another amnesty bill for recent constructions. Even President Erdoğan himself has boasted about his government building amnesties that have helped hundreds of thousands of people during his campaign trail in 2019. On February 16, Minister of Justice Bekir Bozdağ vowed that everyone responsible for faulty construction, not only construction developers but auditors, and officials will face investigations. Time will show how far these investigations go, time and measures that must account for the deaths of 38,044 people — the most recent death toll at the time of writing this story.

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