The devastating impact of the recent earthquakes on Türkiye’s minorities
On 6 February 2023, 7.7 and 7.6 magnitude earthquakes occurred at 04:17 hrs and 13:24 hrs respectively, centred on Kahramanmaraş, Türkiye. They were felt as far away as Egypt, Lebanon, Cyprus and Iraq, while Syria was also badly affected. Over 50,000 people were killed and over 100,000 injured in Türkiye alone. Numerous aftershocks followed, and two further earthquakes hit the affected region two weeks later. To make matters even worse, the region was subsequently hit by torrential rain causing devastating floods.
Disasters expose and exacerbate existing inequalities and divisions within societies. After the earthquakes in Türkiye, things were no different. As minority communities picked up the pieces after the devastation, they were faced with renewed discrimination and marginalization in the aftermath of these disasters.
‘Ethno-religious differences were forgotten in the early days of the earthquake but were remembered soon after.’
The minorities most affected by discrimination following the earthquakes are Alevi communities including Turkish Alevis, Kurdish Alevis and Nusayris, as well as Rom, Dom and Abdals. Sunni Kurds have arguably been less affected by discrimination since the provinces where they mostly live, such as Diyarbakır and Şanlıurfa, were relatively less affected.
Discrimination in disaster relief
The provinces worst affected by the earthquakes are also among those where Alevi (Nusayri, Turkish Alevi and Kurdish Alevi) communities mostly live. Following extensive interviews and a media review, it appears that Alevis are among those most exposed to discrimination based on their identity during the post-earthquake period.
Celal Fırat, the President of the Federation of Alevi Associations, said, ‘It is really difficult to be an Alevi in this country. Alevi citizens living close to the city centres were not subjected to discrimination because their identities were not well known, but citizens living in Alevi villages felt this very intensely. I can say that Alevis were severely discriminated against. No one asked us if we needed anything, or we were not informed anyhow by the authorities. We are on the 47th day of the earthquake, but the lack of tents is still a serious problem. The tents we brought from Europe were also confiscated.’ He also adds that there are two heavily damaged cemevis (places of worship) in Kahramanmaraş, a cemevi in Adıyaman has been demolished due to the damage and there is another demolished cemevi in Iskenderun.
‘Throughout history, Alevis have been excluded by official ideologies, exposed to massacres, and treated as second-class citizens. But seeing this discrimination during the earthquake was even more devastating.’
Meanwhile, Rom, Dom and Abdal communities (sometimes conflated as Roma or ‘Gypsies’ due to their traditionally travelling lifestyles), also experienced discrimination in the delivery of aid. ‘Ethno-religious differences were forgotten in the early days of the earthquake, but were remembered soon after’, says Göktan Yıldırım of the NGO Romani Godi.
He explains that citizens belonging to these communities were subjected to severe discrimination: ‘[T]hey mentioned there were officials saying, “You are a Romani, you are already living in bad conditions” when they asked for help or a shelter. According to a Romani citizen, she was treated as a “beggar”until it was learned that she was a nurse. We were stopped by a municipality official while we were conducting interviews at a temporary shelter in Mersin. What he told us was “We’ve been trying to get these people out of here for 20 days. Don’t believe what they say.”’
Another NGO Kırkayak Kültür reported that ‘Dom and Abdals, whose housing conditions were bad even before the earthquakes, both struggle against poverty and live in fear of entering their makeshift houses. They were forced to enter their houses, as claimed. However, families don’t want to enter those houses out of fear.’ Such observations are underlined by the European Roma Rights Centre which notes that racism and discrimination against those identified as ‘Gypsies’ has ‘exploded’, with members of these communities receiving hate even at the hands of relief volunteers. This has taken place amidst a backdrop of denial of access to food and water, accommodation and forced evictions from emergency shelters.
While there were egregious cases of discrimination, some were countered by basic human kindness and solidarity. Earthquake survivors in Hatay were given packages of hygiene products and underwear distributed by a business association, though they reportedly contained a booklet of Islamic prayers along with discriminatory messages such as ‘Don’t greet Jews and Christians first. Force them to the narrow part of the road’. Yet this advice does not necessarily mean such attitudes are uniform across Turkish society. One citizen reacted: ‘We are in the earthquake and they take advantage of our desperation and follow a discriminatory path. We do not accept this approach.’
For smaller minorities, the human loss is significant
Even for those minorities who do not appear to have experienced such severe aid-related discrimination, the future still appears uncertain, as communities have been decimated and heritage sites destroyed. Türkiye’s small Armenian, Syriac, Orthodox and Jewish communities, living in the ten provinces most affected by the earthquakes, have not reported discrimination in the distribution of relief. Nevertheless, the disaster has resulted in severe human loss.
The village of Vakıflı is known as the only Armenian village in Türkiye. Before the earthquakes, 135 people lived there. ‘Half of the buildings in Vakıflı Village are destroyed. The death toll is not high in the village, but there are wounded citizens’, says the President of its Armenian Community, Cem Çapar. Only 30 remain now in Vakıflı, left fearing for the future existence of their village, already endangered by migration to Istanbul. Çapar adds that ‘although the aid from the first day of the earthquake has helped to sustain our lives, this region cannot be revived unless there is a state or international will.’
‘I don’t know how they will return later or whether they will be able to stay when they come.’
For smaller minorities, the loss of a few leading community members can have a disproportionate impact. The Armenian community faced very significant losses. Armenian families in Iskenderun lost three members each. The singer Zilan Tigris was found dead in Diyarbakır. Three people from the Malatya Armenian community were among those reported to have lost their lives as well.
Can Ustabaşı, Representative of Community Foundations, said in a statement, ‘[T]hose people were an important role model with their solidarity and friendship for thousands of years. The earthquakes have destroyed a whole city without discrimination between Christians, Muslims, Jews, poor, rich, educated and uneducated. After such a disaster, I would not even want to imagine the existence of a system or an authorized institution that could discriminate against the victims.’ The President of the Antakya Jewish community Şaul Cenudioğlu and his wife Tuna were among those who lost their lives during the earthquakes. Some of the remaining members of the once-thriving Jewish community left Antakya after the earthquakes, while those who could not leave by their own means were helped to get out of the city.
Destruction of heritage
Many ancient structures built and maintained by minorities were lost in the devastation. The impact of the loss of these sites is considerable, as many of them have served for centuries as focal points for their communities. The Turkish Chief Rabbinate Foundation has described on social media how, ‘along with our historical Antakya Synagogue, 2,500 years of Jewish life came to an end with this great pain…’
The Assyriac Ancient Metropolite Mor Peter and Mor Paul Churches in Adıyaman are among the heavily damaged structures connected to minority communities. Kenan Gürdal, Chairman of the Assyrian Foundation, briefly summarizes the situation of the Assyrian community, mostly living in and around Mardin, after the earthquakes: ‘Most of our community members went to Mersin because of their kinship relations. There were approximately 300 Assyrian families in Adıyaman. We learnt that some of them had damage in their buildings and that a family of four died. Our church has been badly damaged. But we know that in Hatay, although not Assyrians, the Christian communities and the Jewish community were seriously damaged. I must mention that there was absolutely no such thing as discrimination. Everyone was treated equally; whatever the demands of our community members were met by both AFAD [the government’s disaster relief agency] and other organizations.’
After widespread destruction in the Çavuşoğlu and Salköprü neighbourhoods, where nearly all of the Armenians and Assyrians in Malatya reside, people are migrating away from these already dwindling communities, and those who remain, like the residents of Vakıflı, are uncertain about the future. Yusuf Bayyiğit took his family away from Malatya but was one of the handfuls who returned. Of the rest of his community, he reflects in a news report that ‘I don’t know how they will return later or whether they will be able to stay when they come.’ Like Gürdal, he reports that the disaster affected everyone without discrimination, but for a community already much reduced by the political developments of the last century, and now ‘decreased to almost non-existence’, the future looks very uncertain.
The Greek Orthodox communities living in Antakya and its surrounding areas were some of those that suffered the most during the earthquakes, both in terms of human loss and the loss of structures such as houses, workplaces and places of worship. Anna Maria Beylunioğlu of the Orthodox media platform Nehna Biz reports that ‘we have lost 60 people only from the Antakya centre, and from other regions as well. The majority of our community members, especially those living in Antakya, have moved to Mersin. Others moved to Istanbul, or if they had relatives abroad, they moved abroad. There is still a certain population presence in Samandağ and İskenderun, though. Certain churches are still active there. Our community is in search of a medium-term solution, and there are currently a maximum of 10 people in the centre of Antakya. Our citizens staying in the Iskenderun region also live in tents in the church garden or in a container house built in the garden. Many of our churches are severely damaged.’
‘After what happened, no one bothered to make them stay. You can “achieve” the cultural change of a region in the easiest way with environmental change.’
Stating that the community did not face any discrimination, Beylunioğlu mentioned one of the reasons for this is the community mostly gathered around their churches following the disaster, though she added that she heard people belonging to other ethnic and religious minorities were exposed to this, especially in the Defne and Samandağ regions of Hatay.
‘In recent days, there have been many reports circulating in the media, especially against the Christians from Hatay, targeting our Christian citizens’, said Meral Danış Beştaş, Deputy Chairperson of the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
Fears of demographic change
As the quake’s immediate wounds begin to heal, fears persist that resettlement efforts are being used to alter the demographic makeup of regions where Kurdish and Alevi citizens live. Asbestos-ridden debris from the destruction that took place in Malatya has reportedly been dumped in Mamurek, where three Alevi villages are located. Locals fear that this is a conscious decision to force migration. Alevi organizations carrying out aid work in the region have reported that their efforts had been hindered by authorities. The destruction of an Alevi town in Adıyaman was so severe that it was essentially ‘wiped off the map’. Reporting insufficient aid efforts, most of the survivors have indeed been forced to flee.
‘We saw discrimination and the lack of an equal citizenship approach in earthquake regions where Alevis predominantly live. Throughout history, Alevis have been excluded by official ideologies, exposed to massacres, and treated as second-class citizens. But seeing this discrimination during the earthquake was even more devastating. The state generally failed in search and rescue efforts; it is true. However, we clearly saw discrimination in directing the rescue teams and distribution of aid’, said Tülay Hatimoğulları Oruç, an MP for the HDP.
Journalist Bahadır Özgür shares these fears. He writes that ‘Antakya is not in a financially good situation, but it is a middle-class city with different religious, ethnic and cultural identities. No matter how many maps you changed, you couldn’t eliminate it. So, it is the first target right now. We know this from the history of Türkiye. After the massacres, murders and dispossessions, Assyrians from Mardin, Alevis from Maraş, Armenians and Greeks from Istanbul left. Because after what happened, no one bothered to make them stay. You can “achieve” the cultural change of a region in the easiest way with environmental change.’
The earthquakes and the floods have resulted in widespread devastation, but this loss has not been felt equally across Türkiye’s diverse communities. It seems that the will to protect and provide for those affected has not been shared evenly, whether manifested as discrimination at the point of accessing relief or merely as a lack of any relief efforts at all.
Even for minority communities that have not reported being exposed to discrimination in the aftermath of the earthquake, the future has been rendered deeply uncertain. For smaller minorities, the loss of key community leaders has had both an immediate impact on the communities themselves as well as on how they interact with their minority and majority neighbours. Displacement has scattered many members of minority communities so that they lose the critical mass needed to maintain their languages, traditions, religious beliefs and cultural practices. This impact is made even worse by the loss of heritage sites, which have long served as the infrastructure for minority expression.
It will take Türkiye many years and a concerted effort to repair the damage caused by the Kahramanmaraş earthquakes. As part of this process, the country’s minority communities must be given the means to ensure that they, too, can rebuild and thrive.
‘We are in the earthquake and they take advantage of our desperation and follow a discriminatory path. We do not accept this approach.’
Aydın and Zehra Çoraplı, members of the Alevi community in Dardagan Village, try to repair their barns destroyed in the earthquake. Adiyaman, Türkiye. 24 March 2023. Credit: Eren Aytug/NarPhotos.
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