Monthly Archives: October 2011

Trapped: My impressions of the Van quake

It was only on Friday, my final day covering the earthquake, that some of the horror sunk in.

I had decided to spend a few hours watching rescuers cut through the remains of the Aydin building in Ercis, a student dormitory from which two teenagers had been pulled out alive the previous night. As they were released, they said they had been able to hear their friend, Ensari Dilmac, who was still trapped. Apparently, Ensari had been in a different room from the others. Moments before the quake struck he had walked from the living room into the kitchen, they believed.

When I arrived twelve hours had passed since rescuers pulled out the other two, and there was no sign of Ensari. It was terrifying to think that five days earlier, all that had separated him and his friends were a few footsteps into a neighbouring room. Now several metres of concrete and twelve cold, vital hours stood between them. Sitting close by the rescuers was Kamuran Dilmac: his face hard, intent. They brought in sniffer dogs and acoustic equipment. The cranes, the diggers, the cars in the adjacent street would stop and a listening silence would settle on the scene as a man peered into some tiny nook in the concrete and shouted: “Is anybody there? If you can hear me, make a noise.”

It was hard to see that anyone could still be alive. The floors of the building were packed together as tightly as geological strata. The rescuers were like miners obsessed with finding that precious seam: the second floor, where Ensari and his friends had been staying.

Carefully and over painstaking hours they quarried the ruins, now and then pausing when they came upon something that could be significant: a bundle of clothes, a mattress, cooking utensils. It was disturbing to see the accoutrements of everyday life reduced to a thin, coloured band sandwiched in grey concrete. Objects that only days ago had been carefully arranged, handled, cared for, were now broken, jumbled, caked in dust.

As soon as the sharp sunshine fell behind the surrounding buildings it became bitterly cold. As the light waned the rescue workers turned on their head lamps. Dusk hid the devastation somewhat, and the spots where they were working became little nests of light. The spaces left to search grew fewer and fewer.

I decided to go back to my hotel. I would like to say I was reluctantly torn away, but it wasn’t so. I was cold, it was dark, my paper had lost interest, and I did not believe Ensari was alive. Besides, I had a photo-essay to edit, and my translator had no coat, conveniently allowing me pretend to myself that I was leaving on someone else’s account.

My time doing ‘death knocks’, and reporting on car crashes and suicides and so on for a local paper in England have somewhat de-sensitised me to death. Half of me takes a kind of macho pride in it, but it also troubles me. I had spent a week speaking to the victims of this catastrophe in Ercis, Van and the villages around, without ever really feeling like I had emotionally registered what was happening.

Driving home that last day something occurred to me that I had never thought about when entering Ercis for the first time, four days earlier, hungrily eying the ruins around me. I had never really considered that beneath those piles of rubble there were people living the most potent of nightmares: that of being buried alive.

One myth that may need dispelling about the quake response is the idea that the government, or local authorities, or ‘the west’ of Turkey, do not care about the quake victims or are not trying hard enough to help them.

As far as I could judge almost everyone – the rescue workers, the government, the media who helped raise millions, the public, and municipalities of every political stripe – have done their utmost to help these people.

Those who conspicuously did not help were Muge Anli and her ilk – those who sent boxes of stones (is this actually true?) or said the earthquake was ‘God’s revenge’ on Kurds.

While these people are in a minority, their views are significant. I have met many Turks in Istanbul who casually express these kinds of attitudes about Kurds.

There is often a thin line between patriotism and racism, and the media here has little appetite for exposing the latter.

What is useful about the Muge Anli fiasco is that the ugliness of such sentiments as she expressed has been revealed in a context that makes it impossible to ignore. Perhaps Turkish society and media will now be more aware of this issue.

Another thing that struck me when talking to quake victims was how grateful and appreciative most were of the aid effort.

This is a part of Turkey where there is deep-seated Kurdish nationalism, serious resentment towards Ankara, and a culture of victimhood.

I was struck by the number of people that told me, “Yes, generally we feel our part of the country is neglected, but we’re really grateful for what everyone’s doing for us… Now tell them to get us more tents.”

Of course, a good deal of people said the opposite. In areas overlooked by the aid effort, some were swift to voice their frustrations along the usual political lines. But the ‘They ignore us because we’re Kurds’ sentiment was, on reflection, notably rare.

The rejection of foreign assistance early on: I think this was a massive, even criminal mistake that probably cost lives.

But this is so obvious and I’m sure so many people have fumed about it already that I won’t dwell on it.

To quote a leader column from the Times: “The hours after an earthquake are a race against time. There are never enough rescuers, and they are never there fast enough.”

Difficult to dispute that, I think, particularly in this instance.

Never having covered an earthquake before, I can’t hope to independently judge the general quality of the response, but veterans of other earthquakes (reporters, academics etc) who I spoke to generally seemed to think it was reasonable.

There were a few things though that the government should take on board. The building quality problem is the biggest.

The co-ordination between the many branches of the response effort also seemed poor. If I’d been in charge, I would probably have restricted the access of civilian vehicles to the centre of Ercis.

With buildings collapsed into the road, and diggers, lorries, cranes all moving about, the last thing that ambulances and other emergency vehicles needed were the already crippled thoroughfares further choked by civilian traffic.

It’s not a big city, people could easily have parked on the outskirts and walked in and out. But you’d often see ambulances stuck in traffic. Poor urban planning probably exacerbated this problem.

Now, the thing that made me really angry: Erdogan. His speech to the AKP in which he accused the BDP of failing to help was disgusting.

It’s simply false. I saw aid trucks from many BDP municipalities helping out around the quake zone.

BDP politicians told me that the government has rejected their requests to co-ordinate aid efforts. They even have separate crisis management centres.

It seems as if the AKP is playing a political game here. They are doing one of the things they are often said to do best: using charity as a vote-winner.

The government knows that when it comes to helping the quake victims, it’s got the BDP beaten hands down. It’s not as if Diyarbakir municipality can magic up 5,000 pre-fabricated houses at a moment’s notice, but Ankara can.

The BDP has handled itself with only slightly more grace, turning the accusation back on Ankara, accusing (wholly unjustifiably in my opinion) the AKP of ignoring the quake victims.

How depressing that even in the immediate aftermath of a disaster as huge as this, these two parties cannot for a moment lay aside their differences. They badly need to.

Finally, people need to watch closely what happens in the coming months, These people cannot live in tents all winter, when the average temperature will drop to -8C.

At the moment everyone is living outside all the time, including to cook their meals etc. They will not be able to live like that for long.

On the plane back to Istanbul, I started to think again about Ensari Dilmac. Did they find him? Was he alive?

From checking the Internet that morning I knew it was unlikely: if someone had been found alive after more than 120 hours it would be big news.

When I landed in Istanbul, I immediately called Kamuran Dilmac. Kamuran had been living in Ireland for the past 11 years and spoke with a strong West Irish accent.

He had come to Ercis when he heard about his brother. I called his number, an Irish woman answered. Wrong number, I was told.

I asked my translator to call up a contact in Ercis municipality. The answer came back: “HI ALEX. I CALLED MUSTAFA AND HE SAID ENSARI DILMAC IS DEAD… TAKE CARE”

I tried to find out more about the circumstances of his discovery but have not yet been able to do so.

I got contradictory reports about what exactly the other two teenagers had heard when they were trapped. They had not been certain the person responding to their calls was Ensari.

Had Ensari ever been trapped alive in the rubble? Was he in fact killed instantly? It would be better to think so.

But if this was the case, who was it that was replying to the teenagers’ call? Six people were taken from that building; only two were alive.

Azra Karaduman, 15 days old and one of the survivors. Rescued after 46 hours, during which her mother sustained her with her breast milk.

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A week reporting on the Van earthquake

I plan to post a fuller account tomorrow of my experiences of a week reporting from the region around Lake Van that was hit by a 7.2 magnitude earthquake last Sunday. For now, here are the links to my stories on it:

24/10/11 – The Times – “Up to 1,000 feared dead in Turkish quake”
24/10/11 – Christian Science Monitor – “Turkey earthquake: digging out, fears of more casualties”
25/10/11 – The Times – “Survivors spend near freezing nights on streets”
25/10/11 – Eurasianet – “Turkey: Earthquake response “improved”, but still sparks frustrations”
26/10/11 – The Times – “Born again: baby pulled from quake ruins”
26/10/11 – Christian Science Monitor – “Turkey earthquake rescue efforts push ahead despite ethnic tensions”
27/10/11 – The Times – “Grief turns to anger over ‘botched’ quake relief”
27/10/11 – Eurasianet – “Turkey: Is quake widening Ankara-Kurdish rift?”
28/10/11 – The Times – “Teen in miracle rescue from Turkey’s quake rubble”

A trip to Silivri

Protestors have set up a camp outside the Silivri courthouse to show their opposition to the ongoing Ergenekon and Balyoz trials.

On Friday I travelled to Silivri, a seaside town a few miles outside Istanbul, to see for myself the ongoing trial of the alleged ‘Sledgehammer’ coup plotters.

The sight of the courtroom alone was enough to make the trip worthwhile. It is cavernous: the size of a gymnasium, and can seat up to 180 defendants, dozens of lawyers, and hundreds more observers.

It was purpose-built on the grounds of Silivri prison in order to accommodate these sprawling trials that are a defining – and controversial – feature of contemporary Turkey.

To supporters of the Sledgehammer and Ergenekon probes, the building no doubt symbolizes the country’s determination to come to grips with the crimes committed by its once-dominant military, and the so-called ‘Deep State’.

But as I’ve often written before, what interests me about Sledgehammer are the worrying and persistent signs that someone has fabricated evidence against the 200-odd defendants, possibly on a breathtaking scale.

How extensive is this fabrication? Who carried it out? What role have the police played? What role has the judiciary played? These questions have received little attention.

Around 150 of the suspects were sitting in the dock when I visited Silivri, presenting a sea of greying, balding pates. Almost the whole day was taken up by 30 or so defence lawyers requesting that their clients be released from custody.

Roughly summarized, the common thread ran something like this:
“We have shredded the prosecution case… There is no point discussing the substance of the evidence against our clients because we have demonstrated convincingly that that evidence is fake… The fact that our clients remain in custody shows that this is not an independent court.”

I can’t list all the examples with which they attempted to show the fabrication, but they included:

-Signs that the date codes on individual ‘coup’ documents had been tampered with;

-Some defendants were proven to be posted abroad at times when the prosecution evidence places them in Turkey;

-Many coup documents, supposedly written by different people, at different places, at different times, and handling very different subjects, were clearly taken from a single Microsoft Word template;

-A CD created by police and containing copies of alleged coup documents may have been created before the evidence itself was supposedly seized;

-Numerous anachronisms suggest documents were authored later than their ostensible creation dates;

I have no way of independently evaluating most of these claims. But as I’ve written before, some of these examples have been very clearly documented.

Throughout the day, the prosecutor and judges, perched close together on raised benches, listened in shifting attitudes of boredom.

What struck me was the utter lack of vitality in the whole procedure. The defence lawyers knew perfectly well their clients would not be released. They also knew perfectly well that their arguments would not provoke a flicker of interest. And it was all played to a virtually empty press gallery.

I know this trial has been going on for months now, but it still surprises me how little interest the actual proceedings are generating.

Whether you see Sledgehammer as Turkey’s ‘truth and reconciliation’, or as a show trial orchestrated to destroy the government’s political enemies, you can’t deny that it’s important.

But with one or two honourable exceptions, the Turkish media has utterly failed to even analyse the defence’s quite serious allegations of judicial and police malpractice.

The overall experience reinforced what is perhaps obvious: this is a political trial, the outcome of which will likely not be decided on the merits of any arguments presented in the courtroom.