The major 1999 earthquakes in Gölcük and later in Düzce, both near Istanbul, were huge tragedies as well as huge lessons for us. It was not only the naked truth of the earthquake that we came face to face with at that time, but the widespread institutional deterioration as well. That was the period that came after the February 28 coup — when a Turkish military memorandum toppled the government in an event that is also referred to as the “postmodern coup.” It was a time when academics would define themselves first as civil servants. It was yet another coup period that we are so familiar with. Those times witnessed the performances of individuals and institutions that glorified state ideology, justifying their actions through the fallacy of “serving the state.”

For instance, Professor Ahmet Mete Işıkara, geology and earthquake expert, who was later nicknamed “Grandpa Earthquake,” said with ease on TV, “I am a civil servant. I cannot announce the magnitude of the earthquake before I get approval from the government.” In the early hours of that night and even in the afternoon hours of the following day, because prime minister Bülent Ecevit and other members of the cabinet were not able to be consulted due to a massive communication failure, the Kandilli Observatory announced the magnitude of the earthquake as 6.9 on the Richter scale. If you don’t know the constitution, you may wonder why this matters. Well, it is actually very important because for earthquakes of magnitude 7 and above, according to the constitution, a state of emergency declaration is required. Even before the government and parliament decide to declare the state of emergency, certain adaptations to the state of emergency are made automatically: all the vehicles, tools, and the human resources of both the government and private institutions can be, or could have been, channeled for earthquake relief through the surviving administrative authorities and local administrators. This opportunity the constitution granted was not put into use. Well, before anything else, “Grandpa Earthquake” was a civil servant — as were all the academics of the time who were able to keep their places in the universities. They were the officials of the “grand state” that has recruited them and has kept them in their positions; they could not have been the officials whose duties and powers were defined by the constitution. 

Another example is Kızılay, the Red Crescent of Turkey. Two of my acquaintances survived the earthquake in the Körfez district of the Kocaeli province, which is just east of Istanbul. Aynur and Adem are elementary school teachers with two children. They lived on the top floor of a five-story apartment building in Körfez. On that night in 1999, they safely jumped down to the ground from a height of about a human being — because the distance left between the fifth floor and the ground was smashed to about a human’s height. “We survived over the top of our dead and injured neighbors,” says Aynur, bursting into tears. Adem immediately started saving their neighbors. He organized young people who came out alive from the rubble, like himself. They worked until morning, digging out the injured and some of the dead bodies of their neighbors. When the sun rose, the humanitarian needs of survivors rose as well; they used the cardboard boxes they could find in the rubble to build a makeshift toilet. 

It was about 12 hours after the destruction, in the afternoon of the next day, that the first truck arrived at their location. This truck, which distributed bread, belonged to Keçiören municipality, Aynur said. The Keçiören Municipality truck was able to get to Körfez from Ankara, but Kızılay — also based in Ankara — reached them three days later. As a teacher of 20 years, Aynur resented the campaigns they conducted and the donations collected for Kızılay, especially the Kızılay envelopes handed out to students, sometimes using the authority of the teachers, to collect donations. Aynur told the story of Körfez, the earthquake, and the one-time pride of the nation, the Turkish Red Crescent, as an example of why the newly-formed Justice and Development Party (AKP) was giving hope to people and why they were the reason behind this hope. The AKP was founded in 2001, two years after the disaster. 

The range of the abuse, clean-up and robbery through Kızılay was all revealed in the media regardless in the years following the earthquake. Moreover, civilians, local governments like the Keçiören Municipality, other nongovernmental organizations and individuals rushing in to help quake victims were all stopped after a couple of days, as you will remember, after the mighty state woke up from its deep sleep. The reason why the government stopped them is well known to everyone. The terror card, used in a manner no different than how it is used today, has been a cover for administrators at all times in this country. The only difference is that it was the secular segments back then, and it is the religious segment now who believe in this line. In the spirit of the time after the 1999 earthquake, bringing aid to the site was “reactionism.” Today, the earthquake aid is creating “separatism.” 

In the recent Elazığ earthquake in eastern Turkey, the aid brought by pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) municipalities were turned down. This is a clear sign that we have not moved an inch forward in our humanitarian journey. Stories about Kızılay are very much the same as they were years ago; there seems to be no change in terms of institutional deterioration, as you can see.  

The AKP was considered to be the sign of change and renewal, even politically refreshing. The negligence and ideological practices attributed to the state in relief organizations led by Kızılay and in all institutions — then under secular administrations — became the wind beneath the wings of AKP. Everything people were fed up with on that day in 1999 is now being repeated in the hands of AKP. If certain people assume popular support is continuing like it did after AKP first came to power, they are wrong. 

Despite all this, we should give credit where it is due that this social acceptance was right, at least for a certain time. Yes, the first years were the period when they did not hold power, and were not able to actually hold power. Institutions like Kızılay, banks, and the treasury in general were saved from being sinecures. Holes were mended; incidences of embezzlement were stopped. This is a reality for those who want to see it. However, after the concern that the party may be closed was overcome, when they became powerful rulers, everything changed. In place of the holes closed and embezzlement prevented, they installed pipelines transferring national income to supporters instead of the treasury. We have also recently learned that through the Ensar Foundation, another charity, we are sending our taxes directly to Uncle Sam. It was told that they were building a dorm for Turkish students in Manhattan and this was to fight the Gülenist (members of the community led by self-exiled clergyman in the U.S., Fethullah Gülen) influence on young people. With the transfer of our taxes and national income to other countries, new Gülenist-like domains are being created — and new donations are requested from us. Wow. 

In Elazığ earthquake also, despite the discrimination in the acceptance of aid, institutions raced to ask people to donate more, especially Kızılay and the Diyanet (Religious Affairs Directorate). Their share from the general budget and indirect taxes are extremely high, but for a relatively small-scale Sivrice province earthquake, they relied on the people to heal the wounds. Taxes related to the 1999 earthquake were started that year on a temporary basis, but they were later made permanent. As if that was not enough, their rate and coverage increased. Now, they are opening investigations into those who remind people about this fact.  

We paid loads of money to buy F-35 planes and have not received them, and we again paid loads of money to buy the S-400 which we will not be able to use. The state budget is short of healing the wounds of an earthquake through 41 funerals. Is that so? In this environment of economic crisis and rising unemployment, they are eyeing the couple of pennies left in the hands of citizens — as though they wish to rob them of everything at a time when the tax debts of giant companies are pardoned or reduced to the level of peanuts. This much greed has been no good for anyone up until now, and it will not be any good for anyone now either.