As a military helicopter roars over the Kurdish village of Gedikbulak in southeastern Turkey, a crowd of men looks up, some muttering in anger.
The catastrophic earthquake that struck eastern Turkey on October 23, and the ensuing aid and rescue effort, has brought wide sections of Turkish society together. But as the atmosphere in Gedikbulak attests, it has also at times underscored the bitter dispute dividing Turks and the country’s Kurdish minority.
In this village of 2,000 people, 10 people died, 70 were seriously injured, and every single house was damaged beyond repair in the 7.2 magnitude quake. People here are angry at the army, the government, and most state agencies involved in the emergency response effort because, for three days after the catastrophe, the only help to reach the stricken village, situated on a main road, were 60 tents from the Turkish Red Crescent. A widespread perception in the village is that ethnic enmity played a role in the slow response.
“They are ignoring us because we are Kurds,” charged 27-year-old Feyzullah Yildiz. “The government only looks after their own people. We vote BDP [the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party] and so they ignore us.”
The earthquake’s death toll now stands at 523, with 1,650 people injured. The Turkish Red Crescent has cautioned that possibly thousands more could still be buried under rubble. Meanwhile, Kurdish and Turkish politicians are trading barbs over the rescue effort.
Speaking in parliament shortly after the tragedy, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan contrasted assistance efforts coordinated by local governments controlled by his governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) with those of the Kurdish-oriented BDP. In a sarcastic tone, he belittled the BDP’s capabilities. “The municipalities in that region fail to reach out to an area that is right next to them,” Erdoğan said, according to the Today’s Zaman newspaper. “Those who are able to organize people to throw stones at police and soldiers, vandalizing the streets, throwing Molotov cocktails, you see, are nowhere to be seen in the hour of disaster.”
In an interview with EurasiaNet.org, BDP parliamentarian Sebahat Tuncel turned the accusation back on the government. “The government is helping people close to the AKP much more than those close to the BDP,” she said, also criticizing the government for refusing several foreign assistance offers during the earthquake’s immediate aftermath. Those refusals have since been rescinded. “We believe this earthquake is a new problem in the politics of Turkey.”
The day of the earthquake, the BDP made some attempt at defusing tensions with Ankara with a proposal to postpone a parliamentary debate on the Kurdish conflict. The proposal failed because of procedural regulations, the Hürriyet Daily News reported. The discussion took place on October 26 behind closed doors, with the prime minister reportedly alleging that opposition criticism of the government essentially amounted to support for the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Such jabs aside, Bitterness with Ankara’s quake response is far from uniform in heavily Kurdish southeastern Turkey. In the stricken city of Erciş, worst hit by the disaster, many people expressed gratitude for the outpouring of charity. A special telethon organized by the Samanyolu media group on October 23 resulted in viewer donations of more than 65 million Turkish lira (over $36.8 million) in a single night to help quake victims.
Twenty-year-old college student Gokhan Bakan, whose family, like most in the city, is unable to return to their home, said he was impressed with the aid effort.
“Generally they do not care about the east enough, but we are thankful to the government,” Bokan said. “We are getting lots of help.”
Mustafa Aratoglu, an official in Erciş’ BDP-controlled municipal government, also said he was inspired by the national outpouring of aid. “I believe this earthquake will bring us together and we will behave as one people,” Aratoglu said.
But ugly ethnic slurs from some corners of the mass media have fueled debate over whether the disaster is dividing or uniting the country.
Many people in quake-affected areas are furious at the comments of one television presenter, who appeared to imply that victims of the catastrophe were complicit in the killing of Turkish soldiers and police by Kurdish rebels. “Everybody must know their place,” reporter Muge Anli commented on the pro-government ATV on October 25. “Sometimes you throw stones at the soldiers and hunt them like birds. And then hard times come, and you call them ‘love’ and ask for their help.”
Before the earthquake, outrage among Turks was already running high at the October 19 killing of 24 Turkish soldiers by PKK rebels. That sense of indignation prompted some Turks to comment on social networking sites soon after the quake that the natural disaster was “God’s vengeance” for PKK actions.
Though Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz announced on October 27 that the armed forces had ended their operation against PKK fighters for the soldiers’ deaths, he stressed that “our normal struggle against terror is ongoing," according to the semi-official Anatolia News Agency.
PKK spokesperson Roj Welat, however, told EurasiaNet.org that “[t]he air bombardments and artillery attacks continued [after the earthquake]. They never stopped.” Speaking by phone from northern Iraq, Welat asserted that the response to the earthquake by both the Turkish government and parts of the Turkish media had highlighted what he characterized as Ankara’s “racism” toward Kurds.
Though anti-Kurdish comments in the media have received widespread condemnation, they still reflect a deep-seated problem in Turkish society, believes Aslı Aydıntaşbaş, a columnist for the daily Milliyet newspaper, a publication critical of the government. “These sentiments are embedded in society. There’s an upsurge of racism in both western Turkey and eastern Turkey at the moment,” she commented.
“Politicians have a role to play,” Aydintaşbaş added, “and I don’t see how we can heal these rifts by constantly attacking and ostracizing the pro-Kurdish [BDP] party.”
The quake has posed difficult questions for Turkey that go far beyond the logistics of the rescue and aid effort, she continued. “We always talk about the ‘deep state’, but people need to deal with the ‘deep society.’ How are we going to tackle this suppressed racism?”
Alexander Christie-Miller is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.