Sorrow turns to tension over disproportionate Turkey earthquake response

Six days after a massive earthquake killed more than 28,000 in Syria and Turkey, sorrow and disbelief are turning to anger and tension over a sense that there has been an ineffective, unfair, and disproportionate response to the historic disaster.

Many in Turkey express frustration that rescue operations have proceeded painfully slowly, and that valuable time has been lost during the narrow window for finding people alive beneath the rubble.

Others, particularly in the southern Hatay province near the Syrian border, say that Turkey’s government was late in delivering assistance to the hardest-hit region for what they suspect are both political and religious reasons.

In Adiyaman, southeastern Turkey, Elif Busra Ozturk waited outside the wreckage of a building on Saturday where her uncle and aunt were trapped — believed dead — and where the bodies of two of her cousins had already been found.

“For three days, I waited outside for help. No one came. There were so few rescue teams that they could only intervene in places they were sure there were people alive,” she said.

At the same building complex, Abdullah Tas, 66, said he had been sleeping inside a car near the building where his son, daughter-in-law and four grandchildren were buried. He said that rescuers had first arrived four days after the earthquake struck. The Associated Press could not independently verify his claim.

“What good is that for the people under the debris?” he asked.

The sentiment that not enough is being done to free people’s buried family members has taken hold in other parts of the earthquake zone as well. In the ancient city of Antakya, a crush of onlookers stood behind police tape on Saturday to watch as bulldozers clawed at a high-rise luxury apartment building that had toppled onto its side.

Over 1,000 residents had been in the 12-story building when the quake struck, according to family members who were watching the recovery effort. Hundreds were still inside, they said, but complained that the effort to free them had been slow and unserious.

“This is an atrocity, I don’t know what to say,” said Bediha Kanmaz, 60, whose son and 7-month-old grandson had already been pulled dead out of the building — locked in an embrace — and whose daughter-in-law was still inside.

“We open body bags to see if they’re ours, we’re checking if they’re our children. We’re even checking the ones that are torn to pieces,” she said of herself and other grief-stricken family members.

Kanmaz blamed Turkey’s government for the slow response, and accused the national rescue service of failing to do enough to recover people alive.

She and others in Antakya expressed the belief that the presence of a large minority of Alevi — an Anatolian Islamic tradition that differs from Sunni and Shia Islam and Alawites in Syria — had made them a low priority for the government, because traditionally, few Alevis vote for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling party. There was no evidence, however, that the region was overlooked for sectarian reasons.

Erdogan said on Wednesday post-quake efforts were ongoing across the 10 provinces hit by the quake and called allegations of no help from state institutions like the military “lies, fake slander.”

He has acknowledged shortcomings. Officials said rescue efforts in Hatay were initially complicated by the destruction of the local airport’s runway and bad road conditions.

Anger over the extent of the destruction, however, is not limited to individuals. Turkish authorities have been detaining or issuing detention warrants for dozens of people who were allegedly involved in the construction of buildings that collapsed, and the justice minister has vowed to punish anyone responsible.

Kanmaz blamed negligence on the part of the developer of the apartment building where her family had been killed.

“If I could wrap my hands around the contractor’s neck, I would tear him to shreds,” she said.

That contractor, who oversaw the construction of the 250-unit building, was detained at Istanbul Airport Friday before boarding a flight out of the country, Turkey’s official Anadolu news agency reported. On Saturday, he was formally arrested. His lawyer suggested the public was looking for a scapegoat.

In multiethnic southern Turkey, other tensions are arising. Some expressed frustration that Syrian refugees who have lived in the region after fleeing a devastating civil war in their own country are burdening the sparse welfare system and competing for resources with Turkish people.

“There are many poor people in Hatay but they don’t offer us any welfare, they give it to the Syrians. They give so much to the Syrians,” Kanmaz said. “There are more Syrians than Turks here.”

There were signs on Saturday that the tensions could be boiling over.

Two German aid groups and the Austrian Armed Forces temporarily interrupted their rescue work in the Hatay region citing the tense situation and fear for the safety of their staff. They resumed work after the Turkish army secured the area, the Austrian defense ministry spokesman tweeted.

“There is increasing tension between different groups in Turkey,” Lt. Col. Pierre Kugelweis of the Austrian Armed Forces told the APA news agency. “Shots have reportedly been fired.”

German news agency dpa reported that chief of operations of the aid group I.S.A.R Germany, Steven Berger, said that “it can be seen that grief is slowly giving way to anger” in Turkey’s quake-struck regions.

For Kanmaz, it is both grief and anger.

“I’m angry. Life is over,” she said. “We live for our children; what matters most to us is our children. We exist if they exist. Now we are over. Everything you see here is over.”

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