Last week's 6.8-magnitude earthquake in Elazığ, Turkey, made headlines around the world, with a death toll coming to 41, according to official statements. Government agencies and nongovernmental organizations quickly mobilized to provide emergency assistance in the critical first 24 hours, saving 45 citizens trapped under the ensuing rubble.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited the disaster sites in Elazığ and neighboring Malatya to offer his condolences to local residents and personally oversee relief efforts. Several cabinet ministers, also have visited the site to coordinate relief operations and the successful delivery of supplies to affected areas.
Over recent days, the Turkish public has shown an unprecedented outpouring of compassion to those affected, with empathy triumphing over political competition and finger-pointing. We have just witnessed the true extent of the country's compassion and solidarity.
Let us ignore a handful of distasteful social media posts and turn one cheek to those questioning the victims' ethnic identity or trying to score political points off the backs of the innocent victims. As the days go on and communities begin to rebuild their lives, we will surely see a return to political bickering. Let us remember, however, that our nation's resolve in the face of this major earthquake was a lesson too big to be clouded by such narrow-mindedness.
Turkey walked away from this disaster with two things: a strong sense of self and a reminder that disaster-preparedness is a must.
The stories of medical volunteer Emine Kuştepe, whose phone call with a trapped woman, Azize, went viral online, and Mahmoud al-Othman, a Syrian refugee who saved a family from the rubble of their home with his bare hands, demonstrated the good and compassion in the people's hearts. Their acts of heroism showed that differences paled in the face of human moments. Through them, our nation has witnessed its greatness yet again.
Having experienced the devastating 1999 earthquake near its epicenter, I know firsthand the strength of the Turkish public's sense of solidarity. That earthquake affected a larger area than the most recent disaster in Elazığ, yet government agencies were completely incapable of handling the ensuing crisis. It was at that point that civil society rose to the occasion and saved the day. I witnessed the sacrifice and heroism of thousands of ordinary people who didn't flinch from taking whatever they could find in their homes and grocery stores to rush to the site of the disaster. I remember thinking: "This is what a great nation is really about."
I felt something similar in the early hours of July 16, 2016, when I saw ordinary people dancing on tanks having overcome the coup plotters commanding them just hours prior. If anything, this is what Turkey must cherish the most: our conviction that the fate of all citizens are intertwined – that sense of self which unites Azize, Emine and Mahmoud alike.
As we celebrate our heroes, let us remember that there is no room for identity or political sides in the face of disasters. Because in such moments there is no such thing as nationality. When disaster strikes, the reality of being only human crystallizes. But there is a way to mitigate the risks of disaster. Indeed, public institutions like the AFAD and Turkish Red Crescent made significant progress in mitigating the risk.
It is no secret that Turkey needs to learn to cope with the inevitability of earthquakes and other disasters. We happen to live in a certain part of the world where seismic activity can trigger multiple fault lines at any moment. Turkey must mobilize its resources and make earthquake preparedness, starting with the possibly imminent major earthquake in Istanbul, its top priority.
About the author
Burhanettin Duran is General Coordinator of SETA Foundation and a professor at Social Sciences University of Ankara. He is also a member of Turkish Presidency Security and Foreign Policies Council.