On earthquake, of 7.3 degrees magnitude on the Richter scale, badly shook the towns on the Eastern coast of the Sea of Marmara, the most densely populated region in Turkey. An official, though provisional, assessment reports "over 15,000 deaths", while other sources talk of 30 to 40,000 deaths and over 600,000 homeless. The material damage is enormous: between $ 4 and 7 billion according to American estimates and $ 7.5 to 12 billion according to the Turkish authorities.
The towns of Izmit, Yalova, Adapazari and the naval base of Gölcük were amongst the sites most seriously affected by this earthquake, which is the most violent and murderous in the country’s history since the 1939 earthquake which had caused 39,000 deaths in the Kurdish Province of Erzincan. The earthquake was even felt in Istanbul, causing several hundreds of deaths in the Avcilar suburb, largely inhabited by Kurdish immigrants and displaced persons.
In addition to the human and material damage caused, this earthquake has severely shaken Turkish public opinion on two issues:
1Ú. The corruption and incompetence of the State: The majority of the buildings affected were poorly built. Shady business men, working hand in glove with corrupt Town Halls, Members of Parliament and Ministers had succeeded in obtaining official building permits for blocks of flats that often did not even have proper foundations, and were made of cement using sand rather than gravel and only 30 to 40% of the steel reinforcement required. Result: 90% of these defective buildings collapsed, like so many houses of cards, on their occupants, resulting in their deaths.
The businessmen fingered by the media all are known for their connections and even intimacy with the highest levels of the Turkish State. As a result of repeated political purges, the Turkish system has produced a political caste essentially composed of unscrupulous business wheeler dealers who consider office as a means of getting a slice of the cake of state contracts and government bonds. When the balance sheet was drawn up, this system of misgovernment was shown to cost the ordinary citizens a heavy price.
The latter were also shocked at the sheer incompetence and inefficiency of the State machine. Four days after the quake, the State was still completely absent from the site of the disaster. The victims’ families had often to dig with their bare hands or with the help of foreign helpers to try and find the bodies of their relatives under the rubble. Public opinion was staggered to discover that the Army and Security forces, which altogether employ 1,200,000 people and consume 40% of the national budget, had not a single unit or even first aid team available for dealing with natural disasters. An army equipped for airborne operations in Turkish or Iraqi Kurdistan, capable for destroying thousands of Kurdish villages with flame-throwers did nothing to help the stricken population. The Army High Command had to bang the table to demand "that the Army’s moral should not be undermined" and a private TV network was banned for "excessive criticism" while the written press was called to order...
These administrative measures, however, will not prevent the Turkish population’s loss of confidence in the Army and the State. Even the Turkish Red Crescent, a para-Statal First Air organisation, suffered from the general discredit of the Turkish State. The latter had, in fact, pushed its political zeal so far s to forbid humanitarian action by certain NGOs from the ordinary civil society on the grounds that they were if Islamic inspiration...
2Ú The actions of solidarity from countries hitherto presented as "enemies": The extraordinary impulse of international solidarity struck the imagination of a Turkish population, long conditioned by the paranoiac slogan "The whole world is against the Turks. The Turks have no other friends but the Turks". The solidarity from States that were Turkey’s friends or allies, like the United States, Israel or France were generally regarded as politico-diplomatic gestures. On the other hand, that from "enemy" States like Greece and, to a lesser extent Armenia, went to the hearts of the Turkish public and provoke a considerable change in the climate between Turkey and its neighbours.
In this climate of emotion and solidarity, the PKK announced that it would not wait till 1 September for beginning its withdrawal from Turkey "so as to contribute to establishing a context of peace and fraternity". Iraq offered $ 10 million worth of oil to the victims of the earthquake. Massoud Barzani’s KDP also made a gesture with the gift of $ 2 millions of fuel for the victims. The Kurdish town Councils, themselves hard hit by the economic and human consequences of the war, organised campaigns to help the victims of the earthquake. Many of these, indeed, proved to be Kurdish immigrants, displaced by the war and gone to find work in this privileged industrial zone called "the Marmara Principality" because of its concentration of wealth.
Many commentators state that the August 1999 earthquake will mark a watershed in Turkish history, that the Turkish State must be reformed radically to regain the confidence of its citizens. Others raise more crudely the taboo question: "Since its creation, the Turkish Republic has constantly been on a war footing against internal (Kurdish nationalist, communist and Islamist) and external enemies. How can it possibly survive without enemies?"
The American Under-Secretary of State for Human Rights, Democracy and Labour, Harold Koh, has not ceased irritating the Turkish authorities. Stressing the Kurdish problem, the American official proposed a process of political dialogue. "The South-Eastern question cannot just be settled by military means. A process of political dialogue is necessary (...) I have the impression that a fresh phase is beginning. The question that is emerging is complex, covering the political, economic and Human Rights development of this region" he stressed. He also asked the Turkish government to eliminate all the restrictions that impede the development of Human Rights in Turkey insisting that "the rights of Turkish citizens of Kurdish origin are a major problem".
Furthermore, on Thursday 5 August 1999 Mr. Koh visited Leyla Zana, former M.P. for the Party for Democracy (DEP - banned), sentenced to 15 years imprisonment, and Akin Birdal, former President of the Turkish Association for Human Rights, sentenced to over a year’s imprisonment, both for their pro-Kurdish remarks. The American Under-Secretary is the first Western official to be allowed to meet prisoners of opinion since 1996. Hitherto, the gates of the Ankara Central Prison, in which Leyla Zana and her colleagues are incarcerated, have been closed to all such officials including, recently, the German Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer. Mr. Koh’s request had, at first, been refused by the Ministers of Justice and Foreign Affairs but, faced with the insistence of the American authorities, Turkey, for the first time, gave way to its powerful ally. However, Mr. Koh’s remarks aroused sharp reactions in Turkey and unleashed the ire of the Turkish Press: the daily paper Hurriyet displayed, on its front page of 9 August, the picture of a young Turk "incredibly tortured" by the American police with a headline advising Mr. Koh to "abandon Sirnak (Editor’s Note: one of the Kurdish town most seriously devastated by the war) and to look rather to Utah". The next day it way Milliyet’s turn to show, on its front page the picture of a Turk said to have been ill-treated by the FBI in the United States. The Turkish editorial writers let themselves go on the subject of discrimination against Blacks and Indians in the United States, telling the Americans : sweep your own doorstep clean. Already on bad terms with most European countries, is Ankara now going to quarrel with the Washington as well?
N 3 August 1999, Abdullah Ocalan, through his lawyers, called on his supporters of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to abandon armed struggle and withdraw beyond Turkey’s borders for the sake of peace, starting from 1 September 1999. He called on the Turkish State to respond positively to this "peace & fraternity process" to put an end to the Kurdish conflict. The PKK Command Council as well as the ARGK, the PKK armed wing, had announced on 6 August that it would end its operations, in accordance with their leader’s appeal. "As from 1 September we will put into effect the plan proposed by our comrade Abdullah Ocalan (...) We will not carry out any armed operations, except to exercise our right to self defence" the ARGK communique reads.
Loyal to the Turkish Army’s line, the day after the appeal Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit rejected any "bargaining" with a "terrorist" organisation. For his part, Turkish President Suleyman Demirel stated clearly that the State had no intention of altering its policy. Husnu Yusuf Gokalp, Minister of Agriculture and Rural Afairs and member of the National Action Party (MHP - ultra-nationalist extreme Right), the second largest party in the coalition government, declared that Turkey will continue to hunt down PKK rebels despite the appeal, adding "we will capture those who lay down their arms and bring them back (...) Who do they think they are to proclaim a truce with us?"
Faced with this complete rejection by the Turkish authorities, Abdullah Ocalan reiterated his appeal on 6 August 1999. "I would like to stress that I did not make this appeal simply for tactical reasons. It is strategic" he stated, pointing out that he could not purely and simply ask his supporters to surrender because it would have been "neither realistic or practical". For its part, the PKK announced on 9 August that it would hold a Congress to adopt a more politically oriented programme, but without giving either date or place. The Central Committee declared that "while the armed struggle may sometimes be necessary, it has lost its predominant role in the course of the century (...) It has been replaced by political struggle. The forces incapable of changing will become insignificant". Moreover, on Monday 9 August, the PKK offered a cease fire to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) that governs Northern Iraq and controls the Turkish border area. The KDP greeted the proposal for a withdrawal of the PKK from Turkey with suspicion, fearing that its territory would be the principal destination of the PKK fighters.
The Turkish political caste has very mixed feelings, when it’s not outright hostile, to this appeal but the end of the fighting puts the Turkish authorities in a uncomfortable situation. Ankara has always stated that it could not examine Kurdish cultural demands so long as the PKK’s armed campaign continued. Europe has several times invited the Turkish authorities to find a peaceful solution to the Kurdish question and has each time heard them reply that "terrorism" justified their repressive policy. On Monday 9 August the German government called for Ankara to show "wisdom" and described the appeal and the Turkish authorities’ reaction as "an interesting political development". A good number of Turkish journalists and intellectuals, while remaining doubtful of the reasons that led Ocalan to make this appeal, have clearly demanded that, this time, the opportunity be seized and the law on repentants be brought out of the cupboard. Meanwhile the Public Prosecutor of the Court of Appeals, Vural Savas, has demanded that the death sentence on Abdullah Ocalan be confirmed and the court has fixed the date of the appeal hearing for 7 October.
N 7 August, the Turkish President, Suleyman Demirel, met the HADEP party mayors of seven Kurdish towns: Diyarbekir, Van, Agri, Siirt, Hakkari, Batman and Bingol. The Kurdish elected officials explained to Mr. Demirel the serious problems facing their towns and asked that exceptional financial resources should be made available to these towns, so hard hit by the war and the resulting train of three million displaced persons. People’s Democratic Party had won several local councils with overwhelming majorities in the municipal elections of April 1999, despite great pressure and a difficult campaign conditions. It has also, since January, been faced with legal procedures aimed at banning it on grounds of "organic links" with the PKK. Many HADEP members have already been sentenced and some, like the Mayor of Agri, had to conduct their election campaign from jail.
"Any demand is legal if it is made in the context of the Constitution. Otherwise it could engender serious problems (...) All Turkish citizens enjoy the same rights, whether they be from the South-East or the West. We are under an obligation to maintain the harmony of the country so as not to degrade social peace" Mr. Demirel answered them. The present Turkish Constitution was imposed by the Turkish Generals who had organised the last coup d’État in 1980. It extols a unitary, highly centralised State, having only one people, one language and one culture in the land. So, in Turkey, dialogue continues to be carried out on different wave lengths.
TURKISH TESTIMONY: A TURKISH JOURNALIST’S DREAM. Zulfu Livaneli, editorial writer in the Turkish daily Sabah, wrote in the 7 August 1999 issue, about his hopes since Abdullah Ocalan’s appeal. He stated his article in the manner of Martin Luther King’s famous speech: "I had a dream!"
"That there were statesmen in Ankara! Men who placed the public interest above everything else, men free of all personal obsessions, all ambition, free from the traps of money and the vagaries of chance, Statesmen who knew how to overcome their egos (...) These men are aware of Turkey’s growing problems. They refuse to bear the responsibility for a State that is at loggerheads with 11 neighbouring countries and is becoming increasingly isolated. They are on the point of setting up a strategy of peace and reconciliation. A strategy that values the victories of peace and culture above those of war. They make the most of Abdullah Ocalan’s appeal calling for the abandoning of armed struggle and withdrawal of armed fighters from the country.
To give peace a chance...
They set up a period in which they look after the sorely tried people of the South-East, whose inhabitants will be considered first class citizens, whose culture will be respected, a period that can be summed up by the term "binding up the wounds". So that never again should our children die or we lose 30,000 of our citizens (...) Our dear Statesmen will also review our international relations. They will stubbornly struggle to put an end to the conflictual situation we have with Europe, with the Moslem countries, the Scandinavians, the Mediterraneans, in short with everyone except the United States. They develop bilateral relations (...) A Turkey that has achieved internal peace, improved its Human Rights record and resolved its ethnic and religious problems announcing proudly to the whole world that it is a "land of peace and well being" (...) Observing these advances the people regains confidence in its own country (...) Turkey becomes richer, the distribution of wealth reaches greater peaks (...) I am sorry: even if it is only a dream, I can’t go on with it. Because the idea of knowing that all this is possible but never achieved is too painful. Since the padlocks on heads and hearts are locked, a great country is sentenced to a diminishing rate of growth, to hostility, rejection and poverty."
HURRIYET: "LET’S NOT UPSET THE TORTURERS". Oktay Eksi, President of the Turkish Journalists’ Association, leading editorialist on the daily Hurriyet and close to the Turkish Army circles, openly denounced, in his column of 10 August, torture for being an official policy of his country. The following are extracts from his article:
"The reform project has not had much notice from our press. Perhaps it is for this reason that you have not noticed it very much. Parliament’s Justice Commission began last week to discuss the Bill on "torture", an issue which puts Turkey in a position where it cannot look others in the face. Truly, Turkey has been so pin-pointed on this issue that yesterday Sukru Elekdag (Editor’s Note: Another of Hurriyet’s journalists, a former ambassador and the paper’s economics columnist) wrote in his column: "external trade and our external economic relations" had also deteriorated because of this... In short, foreigners have reached the point of saying: "we won’t sell anything to a country of torturers". Let us continue to sulk while repeating "those foreigners don’t understand us". Moreover, only a few days ago the Minister of Justice himself, Hikmet Sami Turk, personally recognised that "torture is one of the reasons why Turkey is unfavourably judged by certain international organisations". Furthermore, everyone knows that legal proceedings against Turkey before the European Human Rights Court on these grounds have repeatedly led to its being found guilty. Starting from that, it is vain to claim that "in Turkey, torture is not the result of official policy". If that had not been the case, torture would have been eradicated long ago. Nevertheless, for the first time ever, the government has taken the matter seriously in hand and sent a Bill to Parliament, reforming items of the Penal Code and increasing the penalties for torturers.
However, the sub-committee, under the chairmanship of Yasar Topcu of the ANAP party, did the very opposite (...) It separated the notions of "torture" from that of "inhuman and degrading treatment" (...) which only leads to a sentence of 3 years 3 months for any officer who treats a citizen "brutally". Do you know the reason why? Turan Genc, Assistant Director General of the Police, who took part in the discussions, defended the torturers. "They also have children ... One must not play with the bread of the torturers" he maintained. What awareness of "respect for humanity" do these DSP, ANAP and MHP members of Parliament have to accept such stupid arguments and lower the prison sentences (intended to dissuade torturers). You see how difficult it is to be just in this country".
A MEMBER OF PARLI-AMENT WHO STATED THAT HE SPOKE KUR-DISH CALLED TO ORDER. The Turkish authorities who declare, to all and sundry, that there are sitting Members of Parliament of Kurdish origin, have once again given proof of their fundamental intolerance. The ultra-nationalist M.P.s of the National Action Party (MHP) found it unbearable that the expression ‘Kurdish language’ should appear in official documents of the Turkish Parliament. Asked to provide a CV for Parliamentary records, the Islamic Member Mehmet Fuat Firat, who is of Kurdish origin, stated that he spoke "Turkish, Persian, Arabic and Kurdish". Ensued an uproar amongst the nationalist M.P.s, who form the majority in the House. MHP members immediately complained to the President of the Assembly, demanding that Kurdish should not be mentioned. Yildirim Akbulut, the President of the Assembly and a former Turkish Prime Minister who had, during his Premiership, forbidden the use of Kurdish, gave way to their demands. For him, Kurdish is not a language but "a dialect" and so could not me mentioned in any official Parliamentary documents. Turkey has, once again, proved that Kurdish M.P.s who regard themselves as such, cannot sit in the Turkish Parliament.