More than a month and a half after the devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria, the focus on helping the 23 million people affected seems to be waning. Therefore, FMS together with PvdA International organised a Political Café on the aftermath of the earthquake. The politicians, aid workers and journalists present stressed that the reconstruction of the disaster area still has a long way to go: "When people are dying, politics should not play a role."
Assistance from the Netherlands
The first part of the programme focused on the relief initiatives from the Netherlands. This included Michiel Servaes (Giro555 action chairman and general director Oxfam Novib), Songül Mutluer (Member of Parliament on behalf of the Dutch Labour Party), Sinan Can (journalist) and Laura Jansen (human rights activist for Child Houses in Syria). For Mutluer, the news was a big shock: "I woke up to a lot of news. It was a huge shock. Earthquakes are common in Turkey, but who would have thought that this would lead to such a big disaster." For Jansen, who lives in Berlin and knows many Syrians there, the disaster was immediate: "Everyone had lost someone or didn't know what had happened to a loved one."
For Servaes and Can - who visited the disaster zone - seeing the devastation was a poignant experience. "Antakya - a city the size of Rotterdam - is just gone. It was incredible to be there," Servaes said. It was also easy to see how the buildings built according to legal regulations still had many standing, while illegally built structures had collapsed en masse.
Michiel Servaes (l) and Ties Huis in 't Veld (r)
The speakers present had praise for the relief initiatives that were quickly launched from the Netherlands. According to Servaes, in a disaster of such magnitude, "it is important to sense whether the Netherlands is ready for a major relief effort, but in this case it could be decided within hours that we were going to do it." Within three weeks, the Giro555 action raised 108 million euros. Mutluer said he was proud of the "beautiful initiatives" that were launched from the Netherlands.
For Can, the news prompted immediate action. Together with Jansen, he set up a campaign to get medical supplies across the border to Syria . "The situation at the border crossings is very difficult. For a long time, only one border crossing for relief goods was open. Also, journalists - accompanied - were only allowed to be in the Syrian disaster area for a very short time."
The Syrian situation
The second part focused on the - often underexposed - situation in the Syrian disaster zone. Farouq Habib - deputy director of the Syrian aid organisation White Helmets - joined in. The White Helmets have been pulling people out from under the rubble since the Syrian Civil War and filming everything they see, helping to uncover war crimes.
First of all, Habib expressed his thanks to the audience present and the Dutch people: "I think it's great to see how people here are so involved in helping Turks and Syrians, people they don't know personally." Habib also stated that the Netherlands ranks third in terms of financial aid per capita.
For the Dutch government, however, Habib had less laudatory words. "The Dutch people are much more dynamic, responsive and motivated to help the victims than the government" . Habib also feels that the international community - and the UN in particular - abandoned the Syrian victims: "In the crucial first 72 hours after the earthquake, we barely received essential relief supplies. For many people, aid came too late as a result." Habib argues that the UN should push for the opening of more border crossings for relief supplies: "The UN now takes the most conservative view on border crossings and that is a political choice."
Although the situation has currently improved, according to Habib, fewer relief goods are still going to Syria than before the earthquake. The White Helmets are also greatly affected by the fact that the Dutch government stopped supporting them in 2018. This was due to unsubstantiated reports about whether the donated money went to good use. However, Habib argues that the Dutch government made a mistake here: "We became victims of a disinformation campaign by the Assad regime and Russia." By recording war crimes, the Syrian regime sees the White Helmets as a louse. Habib made an urgent appeal to the Dutch government to reverse the decision.
In the final part of the programme, Tunç Soyer, mayor of Izmir - Turkey's third largest city - was interviewed by video link on behalf of opposition CHP party. He called the earthquake a terrible tragedy that will continue for some time due to the large-scale reconstruction that needs to take place. In Turkey, solidarity is paramount, according to Soyer: "In Turkey, there is a saying that you are alive when you feel pain, but you are a human being when you feel the pain of another. That is why each of the 30 Turkish metropolises has taken on a part of the disaster area in Turkey to offer relief assistance."
Mayor Tunç Soyer
Although Izmir is relatively far away from the disaster area, Soyer draws the conclusion that better preparations against future earthquakes should also be made in his city. In Izmir itself, there were still 117 deaths from an earthquake in 2020.
After the interview, there was a brief preview of the Turkish presidential elections in May. Can: "It is very difficult to say anything about the elections because of all the uncertainties. However, it is true that Erdogan's AK Party took power after a major earthquake." Mutluer also finds the political consequences of the earthquake difficult to interpret, but "if the opposition [a coalition of six parties] stays together, there is definitely a chance that they can defeat the AK Party."
Laura Jansen (l) and Michiel Servaes (r)
Finally, the importance of helping the area - despite all obstacles - was stressed. Jansen: "Everything is political and everything is complicated, but all help is also needed!"