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DG #50 preview: The earthquakes that devastated Turkey

The 50th issue of Delayed Gratification features an in-depth article by Mitra Nazar on the deadly earthquakes which shook Turkey and western Syria this February. Inga Marsden spoke to Mitra about her experience of reporting on this story.

Inga Marsden: When you left your home in Istanbul to report on the earthquakes, were you at all emotionally prepared for what you were about to witness?
Mitra Nazar: I don’t think you can ever be prepared for something like that, even if you have covered natural disasters before. The first earthquake I covered was in 2020 in Izmir, Turkey. It was the first time I had seen what it looks like when a building collapses, which is a very terrifying thing. Seeing an apartment building come down completely when you know there are people inside is an indescribable, terrifying thing to witness. I had that in my mind before I went to Adana, but very soon it became clear that this was just the beginning, that it was just a small part of a massive disaster. You prepare yourself as practically as you can based on the experience you have from other disaster zones that you’ve been to, but was I mentally prepared? No, it’s very hard.

IM: Did you feel unsafe?
MN: It was clear to us that it was very unsafe to be there, especially because there were aftershocks. Even a month later there were still aftershocks. There was a lot of fear in the air. I clearly remember a colleague of mine who covered an earthquake in Italy texting me to wish me good luck. She told me to keep in mind that after an earthquake you must make sure that you always stay away from buildings and find open spaces. When she sent me that message, I had buildings all around me that looked like they were about to collapse. I thought, ‘there is no way I can keep to these rules – it’s impossible’.

IM: Were you apprehensive about reporting on this story?
MN: While I was reporting the only thing on my mind was getting this story out there. With a lot of news events [in Turkey], media or press agencies push out stories and of course, with this earthquake, there was a lot of media coverage. But the affected area was so huge that there were places where there had not been anyone reporting about it yet, and people from these places were saying there is no one coming to help. This gave me, as a journalist, an extra feeling that my work was important and that I had to go in for the sake of getting the news out.

IM: Why was the government’s response to the earthquake so delayed?
MN: There’s a big lack of transparency in this country. But what we do know is that while there has been some acknowledgment that help did come, it came slowly and did not reach all the affected areas in the first two or three days. The area affected was so big that the government’s argument today is still that no country would have been able to be ready for this. Turkey has a big state emergency response team and many people I spoke to said they had expected them to be prepared for this. It comes down to corruption within those institutions of the state, like the people heading these organisations not being qualified. In the past 20 years under this government, there’s not been enough proper investment into emergency scenarios like this in a country where earthquakes happen, where they have been happening over centuries.

IM: How did it feel to witness the rescue teams at work?
MN: It was incredible to see the risks taken by people, either volunteers or professional rescue workers. You think to yourself, ‘Would I be able to do that?’ I saw a lot of people who were just looking for their own family members; for them it was a life or death situation. I felt a big respect towards rescue workers in general because they work around the clock without rest, and without having time to just process what’s happening. They really are heroes.

IM: Did it come as a surprise to you when Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was re-elected in May’s presidential election?
MN: Yes and no. In the first few weeks [after the earthquakes] everybody thought this could change something. The anger towards the state was present everywhere – you could feel it. But then a month after the earthquake it started to turn. We noticed that in cities where support for [Erdoğan’s party] the AKP was traditionally high, the state came in much stronger with help and aid. The fact that Erdoğan immediately turned the story into ‘we are going to rebuild’ had a big impact, especially with people who used to always vote for him. So we did see it coming in the weeks before the elections, but still, it’s a surprise after 50,000 people died in this earthquake. Considering the background of corruption in the building sector and the slow response of the government, it seemed almost unimaginable that the leader would survive.

You can read the full feature by Mitra Nazar in issue 50 of Delayed Gratification, available from our online shop here.

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