Turkey's Kurdish opposition says government obstructing quake relief efforts - by Andrew Wilks for Al Monitor
This photograph taken on Feb. 22, 2023, shows a crane demolishing a damaged building and a helicopter flying in the background, in Diyarbakir, southeastern Turkey. - ILYAS AKENGIN/AFP via Getty Images
DIYARBAKIR, Turkey — At a disaster center in the heart of southeast Turkey, staff rush about answering phones, furiously tapping messages and calling out questions to colleagues. But beneath the frenetic activity, the country’s “Kurdish question” casts a shadow even in times of catastrophe.
The crisis office in Diyarbakir, the de facto capital of Turkey’s Kurds, is part of the aid operation organized by the People's Democratic Party (HDP) following the Feb. 6 earthquake. The party has its roots in the Kurdish community, from which it still draws most of its support.
However, the HDP relief campaign was hampered by one important factor: Despite winning the 2019 local elections in Diyarbakir and 65 other city, town and district councils across the southeast, it no longer controls the municipalities and their resources.
Five months after 63% of voters elected the HDP’s Diyarbakir mayoral candidate Adnan Selcuk Mizrakli into office, he was suspended by the government. Another two months later and he was in prison, where he remains, having been convicted of membership of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party.
Dozens of other HDP mayors and council members from HDP municipalities have faced a similar fate — either removed from office or jailed — since the 2019 elections. The mayors have been replaced by government-appointed trustees.
Those working on the party’s relief drive say they would be much better placed to help people across the region if they had retained control of Diyarbakir — the easternmost of the 11 provinces affected by the quake — and other cities and towns.
Ozlem Gunduz, a member of the HDP’s executive council, called the trustees a "big issue." He said, “We have only six municipalities where the state hasn’t appointed a trustee but we’re doing our best. If we had the others, I think the death toll would have been less because we would have enforced the building regulations. We would be able to serve cooked meals to everyone in the region after the earthquake.”
In the days following the quake, the HDP coordination center mobilized thousands of volunteers and hundreds of vehicles to provide tents, wood, stoves, food and other supplies around the clock.
However, the effort has run into problems, including instances when trucks organized by the HDP and nongovernmental organizations not linked to official aid agencies were held up by government officials.
“They are stopping us in many places and we’re trying to prevent them from seizing the aid,” Gunduz said.
Visiting the site of a collapsed building in Diyarbakir five days after the quake, HDP co-leader Pervin Buldan underlined the problems the party faces in meeting victims’ needs. “We have mobilized all our means since the first day but as you can see, our co-mayors are in prison and trustees have been appointed in their place,” she said. “Our municipalities were usurped. If this had not happened, these wounds would have healed much faster.”
Her comments were echoed by a group of men sitting around a fire nearby, waiting for news of loved ones trapped under the rubble of the nine-story Soler apartment block.
“These collapses are part of a wider problem facing the people here,” said a local man named Abdullah Hocaoglu. “We have been under attack by the government for years.”
The previous day, crowds had booed Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag as he visited the site accompanied by Ali Ihsan Su, the trustee appointed in the place of Diyarbakir’s elected mayor.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has acknowledged criticism of the government’s sluggish response in the early day of the disaster but local officials from his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have defended the state’s performance.
Ismet Cicek, the joint head of the AKP’s branch in Diyarbakir’s Sur district, described the process. “We are going to people and asking what they need and providing them with what we can,” he said. “We place them in mosques and other places where they can stay.
“Sometimes people take extra and throw it in the rubbish, then they complain that the state is not doing enough. On the first day there may have been some problems but later things settled. We have people who bring support but there are a lot of greedy people who fill their bags.”
Another aspect of the government’s response has raised fears among opposition politicians: Erdogan’s decision to impose a state of emergency across disaster zone.
Selahattin Demirtas, the former co-leader of the HDP imprisoned since 2016, questioned the need for the measures and pointed to elections due to be held in the summer.
“What doesn’t he have the authority to do that needs the state of emergency?” he tweeted via his lawyers. “If there is no state of emergency, can’t the real looters be stopped, can’t they collect aid, can’t the debris be removed?”
Gunduz added, “The state of emergency will allow them to prevent NGOs and political parties from being active in the area, to silence the opposition’s and the public’s criticism of the government’s failings and to cover their role in making this natural disaster worse. They are preparing something for the election.”
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