Interview with Halil Yakut from Halkin Gücü TV in Turkey, who has been a volunteer in Antakya, since the day after the earth quake.
(interview date: 12th February, 2023)
– You came to the earthquake region Antakya from the beginning. Can you introduce yourself, how is the situation?
– I am Halil Yakut. We are here with friends from the Resistance Council. The Medics For The People are with us. We came here the following day after the earthquake. So we saw the general situation here.
When we arrived the day after the earthquake, there was no one here. In other words, there was no one doing search and rescue operations on behalf of the state. And the people were actually in a miserable condition. They had just experienced the earthquake and were soaked by the rain. They were wet from the mud, and there was no place for them to go. Most of the buildings collapsed.
So, I’m originally from here, I’m from Antakya. Eighty percent of the buildings in the city we call Antakya were demolished, razed to the ground. Antakya was razed to the ground. And the people were on the streets. They had nowhere to stay. They had nothing to keep warm. They had nothing to eat. And let’s leave that out: there were people under the rubble, and there was no search and rescue.
There were voices and screams. We were faced with such a situation. We are just ordinary people. I mean, we don’t have the capabilities of the state. We don’t have helicopters or planes, but we were able to come here the day after the earthquake. However, we could not see the state’s search and rescue teams here. We could not see any rescue operation. That was the situation when we arrived here.
– While the state is absent, many volunteers as you came to help. How was the reaction of the people? How did they welcome you?
– So there are two points. First, people are very angry that the state is not coming, is not there, and is not initiating search and rescue. People are very angry. Some people here think that the state didn’t come because they are Arab Alevis, because they are marginalised. Some people think that the state has not come because they are more leftist. They say the state abandoned us. They say the state has forgotten us. They say they have wiped us off the map. There are even rumours. There are rumours that they want to settle the Syrians here. People think that the state has abandoned this place. They are very angry about this.
Besides this anger, many people still have not recovered from the shock of the earthquake. The psychology of the people is very bad. I came here and found my family who moved into a one-storey house after the earthquake. They are inside, but next to the house there is a building that is tilted to the side. So the building could fall on the house.
There are always aftershocks. Even when we arrived. There are aftershocks of magnitude 3, 4, 5. And in these aftershocks, damaged buildings collapse. And my family, for example, was in such a psychological state, not daring to leave the house. They don’t know where to go. Because there is nothing left. They found shelter with an acquaintance. And they will leave the city. But to whom will they turn? Where will they go? What will they eat? What will they drink? Where will they live? That is why people are experiencing shock. People’s psychology has been turned upside down.
However, in response to the attitude of the state, we saw people from Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Kayseri, many parts of Turkey and even from other countries. We saw Britons, Slovaks and Danes here. But mostly, volunteers from all over the country came here. There were non-governmental organisations like us, like the people’s councils, like the people’s medics. There were democratic mass organisations coming, volunteers. And they extended the hand of solidarity to the people. That is the reason why we said this. Our people have a great sense of solidarity.
There is a great sense of taking ownership. Volunteers came here in droves. But, of course, they don’t have the resources of the state. I mean, for example, when buildings like this have been demolished, you can’t do anything to the building without construction equipment. You can’t get to it. Without a crane, without an excavator, you can’t reach the people.
Because the volunteers have limited resources, they can’t reach them. Since they are volunteers from different democratic mass organisations, they also cannot make a full coordination. Which building was entered, which collapse site, where there was intervention, where there was rescue. It is disorganised.
But this is also because the state hinders the volunteers who come here. I mean, we experienced it ourselves, friends, acquaintances of ours who came here yesterday to participate in search and rescue operations. And five times on the way, we have the seventh day today, they were stopped by the police, stopped by the military, taken to the ground, beaten and photographed as thieves. All the while they have come here to help and we know this.
Murat Kurum, the Minister of Environment and Urbanisation, has made a statement and said that no coordination other than AFAD will be allowed, that is, other than the state’s search and rescue personnel. But as we know, AFAD is not there. In other words, if the state does not allow any search and rescue coordination other than AFAD, it means that it does not allow any search and rescue work in Antakya. So what kind of mentality is that, people don’t understand anyway.
Volunteers are obstructed and we see this. Trucks and lorries are stopped at the entrance of the city and AFAD impounds them, government search and rescue personnel impound them and say we will do the distribution. And we don’t know what happens to them, that is not explained to the public. I mean, after that day, after something like that, the state didn’t come here for three days. Until the third day after the earthquake, there was no search and rescue effort from the state, except for volunteers. Only volunteers came. People came from all over the country, we didn’t see the state.
The state then came here on the third day, just with a handful of search and rescue workers. In fact, very few. Imagine, there is the rubble, we hear a noise. We hear a cry for help. We go and call search and rescue because we can’t get through without a crane, we need an excavator, and they have those. They come, just scream for a minute and nothing comes back. So, this person may have passed out down there, dehydrated, but we heard something. But they just go away again. Tens of thousands of people died from such a lack of coordination, such a lack of programme.
When we talk about such a lack of coordination, we can say they were killed. Because I could come here, but the state could come on the third day. So it is a matter of will, if I can come as a normal person. There is work, but it is very insufficient.
I mean, let’s put it this way: after the fourth day, we can say that the work of the state has started a little bit here in real terms, but there are very few of them. In other words, it is not sufficient in any way, and you have to think of it this way: Today is the seventh day. There was an earthquake, seven days have passed since then, and imagine a person lying under the rubble for seven days. There is a person, a man, in the house next to the house where my family lived in the Armutlu Elektrik neighbourhood, and that person’s wife, sister-in-law, and child are still under the rubble, and still not a single piece of construction equipment or rescue team has come to that building, even though we called them.
We called them many times, eight times, maybe ten times, we called the teams, but they only came once, they looked at it, they said they would make records, but they didn’t come. And this man set up a tent in front of his house, sat down there, and now he is waiting to be able to recover the bodies. Because in our culture, dead bodies are sacred, dead bodies are precious.
Our people do not leave their corpses behind. They wait there, and the search and rescue teams, even on the seventh day, have not been able to get into the building and reach those trapped inside. And the search and rescue teams also do not know which building was entered and which was not, where there was work and where was not. In other words, we can say that the state is not doing any work here, is not taking into account people’s lives.
We have seen that here too, volunteers came, yes, we have created living spaces here. For example, we brought containers here, our friends from Muğla brought working equipment here to participate in search and rescue operations. We have brought food here, Okmeydanı People’s Assembly has sent rations, food and clothes here. Grup Yorum, which makes protest music in our country, has sent us relief supplies. They collected the relief supplies in the poor neighborhoods of Istanbul, in Okmeydanı, Gazi Mahalle, Armutlu, Çayan.
And I also saw a woman who came here alone from Izmir. Alone! She saw the news about the earthquake, there was no one with her, she does not belong to any institution or organisation, and comes here to help. I saw a man who came from Samsun; he also doesn’t belong to any institution, organisation or mass democratic organisation and he just came here to help.
People saw the news, jumped up and came here. We actually have such a precious people. We have a people with such a sense of solidarity, a spirit of solidarity, a culture of ownership, but we also see: volunteers running from here to there, people trying to help each other somehow, trying to organise solidarity, but Fahrettin Altun, the head of communications of the State Presidency, imposed a broadcast ban on the second day of the earthquake.
So we see that the state decides to restrict social media. All these volunteers are sharing their information on social media, who is under what rubble, where there is need, where relief supplies are being distributed, and the state makes a decision to restrict social media. So we think about what that means.
So then people went to the governor’s office in Adıyaman out of anger. We learned that they stormed the governor’s office and the governor of Adıyaman responded to the people’s reactions and anger with laughter. Nurettin Canıklı went to the earthquake area, an earthquake victim revolts and scolds the state for not being there, and Nurettin Canıklı leaves clutching his mobile phone and does not even look at the earthquake victims.
Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ and AKP deputy Oya Eronat traveled to Diyarbakır and were booed by the people in Diyarbakır. People say why did you come, you shameless people. And MP Oya Eronat called them “provocateurs”.
I mean, these people lost their lives, they lost the bodies of their loved ones. Today, after the seventh day, they are even ready to receive their bodies, they are even ready to receive the dead. But this is the attitude of the state.
– It is really important and big hope that there us such a big solidarity coming from the people. But, do I understand correctly? It is the seventh day after earthquake and still no construction machines in the neighborhood you are?
– Here in Antakya there is a government office where all the records of the buildings and structures are kept. I can’t remember the name of the office at the moment. All the records about the buildings, development plans, what materials were used, who issued the building permit, so the state office is where there are records about the permit. It’s a one-story building. And after the earthquake, there is not even a crack there. In other words, the building is not damaged, but the state has decided to demolish the building. Can you imagine that?
People are trying to save their lives, they are trying to reach the people who are fighting for their lives under the rubble. The state does not go to these places, does not send rescue teams, can not reach them. But for a one-storey building with these records and no damage, a demolition order is issued. So what happened?
The lawyers of the Progressive Lawyers Association CHD stopped this from happening. They stood in front of the excavators and bulldozers and prevented the building from being demolished. I still don’t know if it was demolished or not, but the Governor’s Office made the decision to demolish that building. When I see that, I think they are trying to hide their guilt. Because there are buildings here that are still standing, there are buildings that are still intact. Few, yes, but they are there.
So why did the collapsed buildings collapse, why did they not hold up? This shows us that it is not just an earthquake, not just a natural disaster, not fate, not something natural, but a massacre, a crime. The state is trying to cover up this crime, if you look at the results today.
Now the state came here, on the evening of the fourth day, but it did not come here with search and rescue teams. The state did not come here with relief goods or supplies. The state came here with its police and soldiers.
Now we are on the seventh day, on every street in Antakya, on every street in Samandağ there are soldiers, policemen and armoured vehicles. In other words, the state that did not come to the earthquake area for search and rescue purposes in the first three, four days, which are the most critical days where lives can be saved, is now coming here with its police, soldiers and heavy weapons.
Why? I heard this today, listen; so I heard this from a journalist, Umut Tastan, he’s a reporter of the Artı TV, a local TV station here, he was doing coverage there. After soldiers saw three Syrians, they were children, they were just walking and there wasn’t anything special. But that’s when they attacked them directly, started beating them and saying, “What are you doing here?” No looting, no thefts. I’m telling you this because there’s a lot of news like this. They attacked them directly and beat them.
Mr. Umut wanted to record this. A special unit held Mr. Umut. They used force to prevent him from filming, and they took the children away. Then they went to three Syrian children who were sitting in the area and watching what was happening, and the same soldiers and policemen said, “What the hell are you looking at?” and they beat these Syrians and took them away too.
And the doctor of the field hospital said to Mr. Umut: “Mr. Umut, there are now more people coming to our hospital for beatings than earthquake victims. And it is soldiers and policemen who are doing this” – he added. This is exactly what is happening now on the seventh day.
So there is very little hope, and seven days have already passed. Today, workers from Kayseri rescued a thirteen-year-old boy. We made a video with them, they were crying with joy. We also experience things like that here. But now an agenda has been developed where the presence of the state, under the pretext of looting, means constantly harassing people.
To be honest, I’m here in Antakya and I don’t know how this agenda came about, but there is constant torture on the streets. We see videos of people being beaten up by soldiers and policemen. We see heavily armed soldiers and policemen. We see armoured vehicles all around us. But we still don’t see a real search and rescue team from the state.
AFAD is here now, yes, search and rescue teams have arrived, but they are very few and they are not even distributing 1% as much aid packages or meeting people’s needs as the volunteers who are coming from all over Turkey are doing. On the contrary, they confiscate the aid sent by the volunteers and we don’t know their fate at the moment. This is the current situation.