Turkish earthquake has shown up limits of strongman leadership

The devastating Turkish-Syrian earthquake is a catastrophe whose extent we can barely comprehend. By Thursday, more than 15,000 lives had been counted lost across the two countries. Fears are the final toll will exceed 20,000. For context, the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, which had a magnitude of 6.3 and levelled much of the city’s central business district, took 185 lives.

Hundreds of thousands across Turkey and northern Syria are now homeless in freezing conditions, many clad only in the clothes they were wearing the night the quake struck. Untold numbers require urgent medical assistance. Rescuers have dug desperately through debris with spades, pickaxes and their bare hands.

A member of rescue team asking people to be silent for them to hear the people under the debris of a collapsed building, in Ghaziantep, Turkey.Credit:AP

The initial quake, with a magnitude of 7.8, and a 7.5-magnitude aftershock, close to Turkey’s border with Syria, destroyed thousands of homes and major buildings across hundreds of kilometres, including shopping malls, apartment blocks, a historic mosque, a major hotel and a hospital. Drone footage taken in Hatay, near the epicentre, showed entire neighbourhoods reduced to rubble.

Turkey says it now has some 100,000 disaster relief personnel in the earthquake zone, increasingly assisted by workers from countries including the US, Poland, Israel, France and Australia. Rescue efforts have been hampered by snow, streets blocked by felled buildings, blizzards of broken glass, a fire at the Port of Iskenderun, and, across the border in Syria, road closures and the ongoing civil war.

There have been a handful of miracles: a 36-year-old woman rescued after spending nearly three days buried in rubble; a newborn baby reportedly pulled alive from a home in northern Syria; a 13-year-old girl from ruins in the city of Besni; a boy who survived when the rest of his family were believed to have perished.

Yet as the hours pass hope dims for those still alive who remained trapped. Attention turns to the survivors, who face the immediate threat of exposure, sickness, day-to-day existence living in tents, under tarpaulins, amid the rubble or on whatever open space they can find. In Kahramanmaraş, a hard-hit city of half a million that lies almost equidistant between the epicentres of the first and second quakes, temperatures are down to -6C at night and barely break zero during the day.

A humanitarian disaster is unfolding. “We survived the earthquake, but we will die here due to hunger or cold,” said one survivor in the Turkish city of Antakya. On Wednesday, the United Nations said it had been able to send only a little aid to Syria, and none to territories held by opposition forces. It said nearly 11 million people there had been affected by the earthquakes, 4 million of whom were already reliant on aid agencies for their daily existence.

Turkish authorities face criticism for moving too slowly. Tough-guy president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who faces an election in May, has been caught flat-footed. Initially conspicuous by his absence from the disaster zone, he then toured the region making unlikely claims: “On the first day we experienced some issues,” he said, “but then on the second day and today the situation is under control.”

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