“Stay calm kicha min, we are safe, but a strong earthquake just hit.” My dad’s voice echoed with these words from Kurdistan of Iraq, shortly after 5am in his time zone. A catastrophic earthquake had struck Southern Turkey and Northern Syria, otherwise known as the Kurdish regions of Bakur and Rojava.
Thousands of families across the region and in the diaspora did not receive calls from family members. Instead, they are on the receiving end of heartbreaking news. With a rising death toll of over 23,000 people and the looming threat of subfreezing temperatures, relief is being withheld in the majority Kurdish areas most impacted by the devastating 7.8-magnitude earthquake.
This international and regional response is a testament to the decades-long systematic and colonial oppression of Kurdish people in Turkey and Syria.
The Turkish government has a long-standing history of repression and systematic disinvestment in infrastructure in the Kurdish region that contributes to the mass destruction across Southern Turkey, or Bakur, as thousands of buildings are reduced to rubble.
On Tuesday, just one day after the earthquake, Murat Kurum, a spokesperson for The Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) confirmed that all aid not sent through AFAD will be blocked. As a result, aid to majority Kurdish areas (Maras, Pazarcik, Elbistan, and Goksun) has been completely blocked off, leaving people to freeze to death with no rescue efforts.
During times of crisis, the state contributes to the violent and systematic criminalization of Kurds. The Turkish state translated crucial earthquake information in 7 different languages none of which are Kurdish, the second most spoken language in Turkey and the language of the overwhelming majority of earthquake victims. Turkey refused aid offered from Cyprus, lending itself to Turkey’s refusal to recognize the government of the Republic of Cyprus. The Director General of the Cypriot Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Kornelios Korneliou, responded to the refusal by expressing “There is an issue of non-recognition and it seems that in matters of natural disasters and human tragedies the political position often prevails.”
Following a whirlwind of criticism and cries for relief from the worst affected areas in Bakur across social media, reports indicate Twitter has been restricted in Turkey across various internet providers such as TTNet and Turkcell. This is an intentional act of repression that will cost thousands of lives, particularly targeting religious and ethnic minorities such as the Kurds and Alevi’s, as many rely on Twitter to call for aid and coordinate rescue efforts. Further, the Turkish state began detaining people for sharing “provocative” earthquake posts via social media under the guise of spreading misinformation.
Earthquake victims in Amed, otherwise known as Diyarbakir, the largest Kurdish city in Turkey, were threatened with detention by the police for speaking with journalists, and journalists were blocked from following the search and rescue operations. Political activists also shared a screenshot of a flight tracker across social media showing the lack of aid being sent to Syria
This disaster has only deepened the continued tragedies of loss and humanitarian crises in Syria and Rojava (Kurdistan, Northern Syria). The region continues to experience civil unrest, bombardments, and continued sanctions from the West. Virtually no aid or relief is being sent to Syria despite catastrophic damages.
According to the United Nations, even before the earthquake, 4.1 million people needed humanitarian aid, but are blocked by various sanctions imposed by the United States, the Syrian government, and Turkey. In 2020, Russia closed all border crossings except for Bab al-Hawa which has been severely damaged and is currently inaccessible, with or without Turkish approval.
On the other hand, areas controlled by the government of al-Assad face US and European-backed sanctions for “war crimes against its own people.” The Caesar Act, a US set of sanctions, should be removed during times of natural disaster because this is no time to be “playing by the rules.” Despite sanctions and campaigns against the “Axis of Evil”, the Bush administration sent aid to Iran after the 2003 earthquake that completely destroyed the old city of Bam. The U.S. has done this before so why not now?
Despite being in the midst of a natural disaster and humanitarian crisis, Kurds and other ethnic and religious minorities are reminded that our mere existence is forever a political and rebellious act.
To stand in solidarity with the victims of the February 6th earthquake across Kurdistan, Turkey and Syria means to advocate for the lift of sanctions in Syria. Now is the time for the international community to send aid directly to organizations serving those most in need and uplift the voices of Kurdish activists and victims. Some ways to do that are through the Kurdish Red Crescent (Heyva Sor), Kurdish Paris Institute, and the Refugee Workers Culture Association, all of which are supporting earthquake victims across Turkey and Syria to include Rojava and Bakur.