Kurds Denied Earthquake Aid: Natural Disasters as Political Violence

By Dr. Hawzhin Azeez

What happens when the most dangerous earthquake is Erdoğan himself? In light of the upcoming June elections in Turkey, nothing has highlighted the stark nature of Turkish ultra-nationalism and racism than the treatment of the Kurdish affected regions following the 7.8 Richter scale earthquake that hit early on the morning of February 6th. At the time of writing, the number of dead has reached over 20,000 across Turkey / Northern Kurdistan and Syria / Rojava and it is likely that the numbers will continue to rise over the days to come.

To be sure, natural disaster’s do not discriminate. They do not differentiate between race, color, class, or gender. They often hit indiscriminately and devastate entire regions and communities. However, the aftereffects of the disaster, the treatment of various communities, the distribution of aid, supplies, technical, and human support often stands out in stark contrast. They highlight the systemic and structural violence that minority communities experience, even across most democratic nations globally. Distributions of resources and aid is an incredibly political process, that determines which communities thrive in the aftermath of disasters or protracted conflicts; and which communities continue to struggle for access to their basic survival needs. In this case, we have yet another example of how even the impact of natural disasters are used as an opportunity to impose acts of violence on the Kurds.

Large magnitude earthquakes are nothing new to Turkey. In fact, Turkey is considered one of the most active earthquake regions globally. In August 1999, a large magnitude 7.6 earthquake hit Marmara, which is a highly populated region south of Istanbul. The earthquake lasted over 45 seconds and resulted in a death toll of over 17, 500. Furthermore, in the last two days, a large number of aftershock have hit the country, including: 81 magnitude 4 earthquakes, 20 magnitude 5 earthquakes, 3 magnitude 6 earthquakes and two magnitude 7 quakes  – with most striking the southeast region of Turkey (occupied Northern Kurdistan).

As reports emerge of large numbers of people still missing and unaccounted for, hope of finding people alive is declining as the crucial 72 hour mark hits. The longer the timeframe the less likely that trapped people will be found alive. Meanwhile, anguished citizens are sleeping in cars, shopping malls, mosques, and out in the open in freezing winter temperatures, as tragic stories continue to pile up in the affected cities. Devastation, fear and hopelessness combines into a heady mixture that affects these already distraught communities, especially in light of the government’s lack of urgency in providing aid and support to the affected Kurdish areas.

As such, internal and external sources have pointed out the long history of high magnitude earthquakes in Turkey, as questions of unequal distribution of resources and aid begin to pile up. Certainly it is a legitimate question to ask why a country with a long history of large scale earthquakes is so ill equipped to handle multiple disasters across several regions? Or, could it be, as many Kurds suspect, the reason is that the majority of the resources are being distributed to non-Kurdish regions? Mixed with the fact that Kurdish areas are already underfunded with a lower quality of infrastructure, as collective punishment for voting HDP rather than the ruling AKP party.

Erdoğan, alongside his increasingly brutal AKP-MHP neo-fascist alliance, have made no attempts to hide their anti-Kurdish sentiments, especially during crucial election seasons. It is not unheard of to see top level party and parliamentary members holding up the ‘Grey Wolves’ sign – a racist paramilitary and criminal terror group, funded by various wealthy political and socio-economic elites across the country – whose symbol represents the most violent, anti-Kurdish hatred that the country is increasingly coming to be known for. For many Kurds, the post-earthquake disaster is simply another day of systemic oppression and erasure of Kurdish identity and lives under the increasingly brutal Erdoğan regime. Many Kurdish activists have taken to social media to point out the unfair and unjust treatment of the Kurds during this disaster:

Experts have argued that racism and its effects are often invisible and can have generational impacts as they reverberate across marginalized communities. According to Bravemen et al:

“Racism is not always conscious, explicit, or readily visible—often it is systemic and structural. Systemic and structural racism are forms of racism that are pervasively and deeply embedded in systems, laws, written or unwritten policies, and entrenched practices and beliefs that produce, condone, and perpetuate widespread unfair treatment and oppression of people of color, with adverse health consequences. Examples include residential segregation, unfair lending practices and other barriers to home ownership and accumulating wealth, schools’ dependence on local property taxes, environmental injustice, biased policing and sentencing of men and boys of color, and voter suppression policies.”

They go on further to argue that:

“Systemic and structural racism are forms of racism that are pervasively and deeply embedded in and throughout systems, laws, written or unwritten policies, entrenched practices, and established beliefs and attitudes that produce, condone, and perpetuate widespread unfair treatment of people of color. They reflect both ongoing and historical injustices. Although systemic racism and structural racism are often used interchangeably, they have somewhat different emphases. Systemic racism emphasizes the involvement of whole systems, and often all systems—for example, political, legal, economic, health care, school, and criminal justice systems—including the structures that uphold the systems. Structural racism emphasizes the role of the structures (laws, policies, institutional practices, and entrenched norms) that are the systems’ scaffolding.”

Jean Alt Belkhir and Christiane Charlemain, in their article “Race, Gender and Class Lessons from Hurricane Katrina”, argue that natural disasters:

“May not single out victims by their race, or gender or class but neither do such disasters occur in historical, political, social, or economic vacuums. Instead, the consequences of such catastrophes replicate and exacerbate the effects of extent inequalities, and often bring into stark relief the importance of political institutions, processes, ideologies, and norms.”

According to recent research by The New York Times, there is a stark contrast between how white American citizens receive government aid and funding in contrast to Black and people of colour affected by the same disasters. Research indicates that FEMA (The Federal Emergency Management agency, USA) more often than not “helps white disaster victims more than people of color, even when the amount of damage is the same.” Therefore, while this level of discrimination between aid and distributions of resources is not necessarily something new across so called democratic countries, it does not mean that it should be tolerated, nor remain unquestioned.

In the case of the Kurds, one of the most marginalized and oppressed communities in the Middle East, unequal treatment during natural disasters, and even conflicts is tragically the norm. For instance, distribution of international aid during the ongoing Syrian conflict has meant that international NGOs often operate with state and their administrators no matter how brutal or undemocratic that regime may be. In this case, international aid and supplies often bypassed the Kurdish dominated and war devastated regions of Rojava (northern Syria). Similar allegations have been made by activists or those affected on the ground during similar crises.

Turkey’s failure to respond in a timely and humane manner to the disaster zone most affecting the Kurds borders on criminal. People in the cities of Hatay, Adıyaman and Gaziantep have released videos showing that the Turkish AFAD (Disaster and Emergency Management Agency) had yet to reach these most affected region more than 24 hours after the devastating earthquake had struck. Other videos show foreign disaster teams waiting at airports, due to lack of transportation and government support. Public buildings, highways, and airports including many hospitals have not only become unusable, but have in many cases completely toppled, prompting many experts to criticize the government for its lack of foresight and disaster planning.

Despite facing an upcoming election  – which may well be postponed now in a cynical ploy to cling to power – Erdoğan and his AKP members have failed to respond adequately, resulting in many more criticizing the government. Not only did Erdoğan not appear 36 hours into the disaster  – despite a propensity for appearing almost daily across Turkish media – he also threatened opposition parties and groups for anti-government statements. Additionally, he also requested people to report fake disaster news through a special app. All of which have been in Turkish, resulting in Kurdish activists criticizing the governments ongoing racism towards the Kurds and their affected communities, who remain literally and figuratively in the dark.

History shows us that the plight of the Kurds in this region is likely to become worse, with this oppressed nation barely receiving the crumbs of the national aid and support that other regions will receive. While the Syrian regime has officially called for international aid to support the victims of the earthquake, Erdoğan has made it clear that only the AFAD will be providing and distributing aid and supplies to the affected zone. The history of both undemocratic countries demonstrate a huge propensity towards discrimination and use of aid, food, and resources as a weapon against its citizens, particularly towards long oppressed minorities.

Natural disasters do not discriminate, but aid distribution following disasters often demonstrates how democratic and inclusive a nation is. In light of the ongoing anti-Kurdish sentiments, and the looming threat of another invasion of Rojava to prop up Erdoğan’s electoral aspirations, it is unlikely that devastated Kurdish regions will receive a fragment of the aid they genuinely require. Which makes the existence and support of Kurdish aid organizations like the the Kurdish Red Crescent (Heya Sor) all the more necessary tonight, as millions of Kurds shiver in the cold, within states that wish they had been crushed by their cheaply constructed residential towers.


  • Hawzhin Azeez

    Dr. Hawzhin Azeez holds a PhD in political science and International Relations, from the University of Newcastle, Australia. She is currently Co-Director of The Kurdish Center for Studies (English branch) as well as the creator of The Middle Eastern Feminist. Previously she has taught at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS), as well as being a visiting scholar at their CGDS (Center for Gender and Development). She has worked closely with refugees and IDPs in Rojava while a member of the Kobane Reconstruction Board after its liberation from ISIS. Her areas of expertise include gender dynamics, post-conflict reconstruction and nation-building, democratic confederalism, and Kurdish studies.

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