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Help Stuns Turkey Quake Victims

August 27, 1999

GOLCUK, Turkey (AP) _ Some Turks jumped into their cars and headed for the region devastated by the quake, others offered aid and shopkeepers emptied their stores to fill trucks with medicine, food and diapers.

Survivors say ``the people″ _ the mass mobilization of ordinary citizens around the country just hours after last week’s quake _ saved them from greater misery and death. More than 13,000 people died, tens of thousands were injured, and hundreds of thousands were left homeless.

It was a marked contrast to the inability of the Turkish political and military establishment to organize in the aftermath of the quake. It took three days for the state to fully get into gear.

Some analysts see the outpouring of help as an indication that civil consciousness is rising in this young republic, and as a blow to Turkey’s traditionally paternalistic state.

In the days following the Aug. 17 quake, grief-stricken families shared water, food and blankets, and helped to save those trapped in other houses.

Many were stunned when instead of seeing organized civil defense forces, they encountered ordinary citizens from unaffected areas and the relatively well organized intervention of volunteers.

``It is the first time we see such a public (sector) void, and this void was filled by civilian, individual initiative,″ said Nilufer Gole, sociology professor at Istanbul’s Bosporus University.

Neighborhood committees were set up in Istanbul, precise lists of needs from remote villages were posted on the Internet and a bank brought in 50 Muslim clerics from Istanbul to perform the mass funeral services in Adapazari, where over 2,600 bodies have already been uncovered.

One reason for the massive reaction is that the quake hit Turkey wealthiest region, which includes Istanbul and is the heart of Turkey’s industry.

``Turkey’s elite was hit,″ said Gole, adding that higher education and access to technology helped organize the volunteer work.

Mehmet Ali Bayar, advisor to the president on foreign affairs, was in the hard-hit town of Adapazari just hours after the monster quake.

Several of his relatives were trapped under three different buildings.

``I was extremely surprised by the efficiency, accuracy and speed of civil society’s response _ not only of organizations involved in humanitarian aid but of groups completely unrelated that found the resources,″ said Bayar, who lost six relatives in the quake.

But the lack of any centralized coordination wasted the efforts of many volunteers. Eight days after the quake no one was able to tell Sibetul Mengen, a retired nurse who had driven in from the resort city of Antalya, 375 miles away from Golcuk, where she could be of help.

The people of Golcuk, a port town crushed by the quake, say they have learned where to look for help.

``After this disaster we will not trust the state administration. We will set up our own organizations, against fire, earthquakes, all natural disasters. From the villages to the cities, we will get organized,″ said Orhan Mungan, as he took a tea break from distributing milk and bread.

Sociologists and political analysts often describe the Turkish state as overbearing, wanting to lead the people in the way set 75 years ago by the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Turkey has only seen multiparty democracy since 1946. But three military coups followed and democracy was restored in 1983.

``The state has treated people as if they were children. Now, I don’t know if the state has realized that the people have grown up, but at least the people have realized that the state is not this huge fatherly figure,″ said political analyst Fehmi Koru.

Sociologist Gole sees the foundations of a civil movement that will strengthen people’s voices.

``This might be a very important switch in people’s mindsets: that we have to be prepared for natural disasters and politically we need accountability,″ she said.

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