Under the earthquake, alongside the bodies, lies the rubble of the State itself

Under the earthquake, alongside the bodies, lies the rubble of the State itself

We’re at the entrance of the road into Adıyaman, looking at vehicles parked in rows that stretch into the distance for miles. It dawns on me that I’m looking at a cemetery. After a long queue we manage to enter the city and immediately park the car at the next petrol station that we come across. It’s not in working order but I ask the attendant anyway if there’s a toilet, and whether we can use it. He answers that the toilet has become unusable. Today is the fourth day of the earthquake.

We go into the city on foot. Every second building has been demolished. Adıyaman has almost disappeared. The difference from other earthquake cities is that there are many people milling around, travelling from place to place on bikes, motorbikes, cars, and we can see children playing in the rubble. We head to one of the wreckage sites where rescuers are working. A man stands waiting at the side. His 17-year-old son is under the rubble. “My son is deaf and blind,” he begins. “The team from the government agency AFAD came, called out ‘is there anyone here’ and left. I kept telling them that my son is blind and deaf, he cannot answer you, but they didn’t seem to care. I know he’s alive, because I hear the sounds he often makes at night when it’s quiet. Today I found the Mexican rescue team and begged them to come and see that my son is under the rubble. Bless them, they came with a thermal camera and found him alive inside. Now they’re trying to get him out.”

I move on to another wreckage site. People are digging with their hands. “The search and rescue team hasn’t come,” they say. “There is no State, no State,” the woman moans.

I notice some employees of a Diyarbakır construction company and learn that they have been working in search and rescue in Adıyaman since day two of the earthquake with their cranes and trucks. “Nurcan Hanım, we were here on the second day of the earthquake, but there was no State, there was no search and rescue. I brought our crane, I brought our trucks, but I couldn’t do anything, there was no search and rescue team to guide me,” says the company official.

The Adıyaman locals I spoke to said that the government only realised on the 3rd day that Adıyaman has been destroyed by the earthquake. For three days they could not make their voices heard because there was no telephone or internet. Most of the lost victims died alive under the rubble.

In the evening, I move from Adıyaman to Pazarcık, the epicentre of the earthquake. It’s minus four degrees celsius. I see a tent city, and to the right of the tent city there are people by a fire. I go over to ask them how they managed to set up their tent city.

“Nurcan Hanım, we realised that the State didn’t care, so we built it ourselves,” an earthquake survivor explains. “What do you mean?” I ask, “AFAD lorries were passing by. We blocked their route and I asked our young people to unload the tents they were carrying onto this bit of empty land to set up the tents. I saw ten soldiers standing around in a corner, so I said, ‘Brothers, help us instead of standing idly by.’ They came and we set up a tent centre for 250 families here.” “Aren’t you worried that they’ll say you stole the tents,” I ask half teasingly. “Whatever they say, Nurcan Hanım, the tent city is here, the 250 families are here, then the State should have come and set it up. We are being forced to fend for ourselves”.

It’s getting colder as the night goes on. We’re now headed to Hasankoca Cemevi in Pazarcık, a gathering and place of worship for the local Alevi community. We park our car in its garden and spend the night in the car. The Cemevi has been turned into a crisis centre where the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) coordinates aid. Nearly 200 volunteers are sorting incoming aid into smaller pick-up trucks to deliver to the villages in need. The Cemevi is used as a dormitory in the evenings for earthquake victims to spend the night. A few days after my visit, the government appoints a trustee to take over the operations of this tiny Cemevi, and news comes in that the district governor has confiscated aid materials in a televised statement, forcing volunteers and staff to leave.[1]

As soon as we wake up the next morning, we head to the outlying villages around Pazarcık that have Alevi Kurd communities that have been greatly affected by the earthquake. We go on to Davutlar village. The State has not arrived at this village where twenty people lost their lives in the earthquake. The villagers had to remove the rubble themselves, they have buried the bodies and abandoned their homes. We come across similar scenes in other villages. On day five of the earthquake, the State has yet to reach the outlying villages of Adıyaman and Pazarcık.

From Pazarcık we travel to Maraş, Nurdağı and İslâhiye. These cities were also completely obliterated. We see a few tent cities set up by The People’s Republican Party (CHP), The Justice and Development Party (AKP), and HDP. It’s possible to see municipalities of the various political parties from all over Turkey in the earthquake zone. Some have opened soup kitchens; some are supporting search and rescue operations with their trucks and cranes. Into the vacuum left by the State, volunteers have stepped in and are everywhere. When I spoke to a group of AFAD personnel standing on the side-lines, they told me they were waiting to be assigned tasks. As people are dying under the rubble and every hour is critical, public workers are unable to rescue people in the disaster zone, because they haven’t received an order to do so.

Theft, extortion, and looting have already begun, but there’s no police or soldiers to protect the earthquake victims. The State is neither a part of the rescue nor offering security in the earthquake zone. What I see in front of me is not only horrifying debris, but also a horrifying indifference. The indifference of the State and its institutions is fatal for those lying under the rubble. People are calling out to their families “mother, father, son…”; mothers, fathers, and children waiting outside the wreckage are calling to their loved ones under fallen buildings, but the institutions, public bodies, the State is absent in removing the rubble that separates them. There are only volunteers and locals trying desperately to lift the wreckage using their hands.

As I look on the wreckage of İslâhiye, I realise once again that we are not facing the “Disaster of the Century” as Erdoğan and his government now call it, but the fiasco of the century, the disgrace of the century. Under the rubble, it’s not only the bodies that have been lost, but the State itself.

At that moment a woman comes up to me. “Where is the State, where is the State?” she cries. Another one says, “Don’t shout, don’t complain about the State, they will detain you too”. As a matter of fact, in many earthquake cities, people have been detained for criticising the incompetence of the State, regardless of whether they are earthquake victims or not.[2] The Erdoğan government’s response to the people’s cries of “where is the state” is to answer “I am here” by detaining its citizens.

Nurcan Baysal


[1] https://sendika.org/2023/02/tek-yurek-dedikleri-bu-hdpnin-1500-cadir-30-konteynir-8-tir-ve-2-kamyon-esya-yardimina-el-kondu-677447/

[2] https://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/turkiye/uyan-artik-turkiye-demisti-o-saglikcinin-evine-polis-gitti-2052218