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Armed forces / Disaster relief

1 September 1999

Kia ora,

The release of the final report 'Defence beyond 2000' (see Defence Inquiry Report) has generated considerable discussion among visitors to our office over the past couple of days. The following article was mentioned as an interesting counter to the view that any country needs armed forces for civil defence or disaster relief work - such a role being used by some as a justification for the NZ defence forces.

The article makes one think, again, about the priorities most governments have in where they put their resources - warfare and killing being seen as valid, regardless of the cost. Although no government could have been totally prepared for a magnitude of the disaster of this earthquake, more of a focus on civilian infrastructure and less on expensive military hardware over the years, may well have left the government and people of Turkey in a better position to cope with the aftermath.


EVERY EARTHQUAKE has its own barbaric timetable: catastrophe, rescue, survivors, dead, mass burial. Then the television pictures fade away, just as they do today when old American movies replace on Turkish television the live coverage of their country's Golgotha. Bread and circuses take the place of grief, fantasy replacing horror.

In Turkey, we have just reached the final equation. The "last" victims dragged from the pancaked houses - be sure there are a few (or many) still waiting for the rescuers who will never come, and who will die, gently or in pain - while their country's leaders declare that "we only need to trust the power of our nation and our state, and deal with our problems hand-in-hand". This is what the Turkish Prime Minister, Bulent Ecevit, said. "We have the strength to overcome this earthquake very soon."

And we - the West - accept this. Just as we accepted their word when the Turkish government said that 14, then 100, then 6,000, then 10,000 were dead, avoiding that critical figure of the missing - 40,000 to 50,000 - which was obvious. The government figures were faithfully repeated by the satellite television reports for at least four days, obfuscating the real dimension of this epic tragedy. When 50,000 were dead, we went on obediently reporting that a few thousand had perished. And no one asked the critical question: what happened to the Turkish army, the defence of the nation, the creation of Mustafa Kemal Attaturk, upon whom the Turkish people relied for their protection?

Alas, the long-term lesson of this disaster has not been mentioned: the defenders of the Turkish people did not defend them. They tried, up to a point, but they had no expertise.

They were untrained, they were unprepared. Somehow, with our Nato training, they were able to sustain a massive guerrilla war against Kurdish separatists, and occupy northern Cyprus, but when they were tested last week, the Turkish army's performance was pitiful. It turned out that while they could assault the PKK with US attack helicopters, they could not even set up soup kitchens for Turkish civilians 24 hours after the earthquake. They could "cleanse" the Kurdish towns around Diyarbakir but they couldn't produce a single earthquake rescue unit around Istanbul.

While tens of thousands of survivors pleaded and screamed for help, only a few battalions turned out to drag the concrete from the living and the dead. In Izmit, armoured vehicles moved through the streets - as if the security forces wanted to put down an insurrection rather than rescue the men, women and children dying in the ruins. While people cried for help in Aydin outside Yalova, hundreds of soldiers sat in their army trucks in a stationary convoy inside the town. They were not armed with picks and shovels and earth-moving equipment, but with automatic rifles. How many more victims might have been rescued if the quarter- million-strong army fighting the Kurds in south-east Turkey had been deployed to the devastated North-west?

"Turkey is our long-time ally and the people of Turkey are our friends," President Clinton said yesterday. So why - instead of selling them our helicopters and fighter bombers (501) and tanks (4,205) - didn't we train these soldiers to deal with earthquakes, the most brutal enemy of the Turkish people? But no, we never encouraged this huge military power to look after its own people, any more than we forced it to accept human rights in Turkish Kurdistan. We poured our outdated Nato weaponry into their armouries after the Soviet Union collapsed. We wanted to support not our "friends" - as President Clinton would have it - but our military ally.

There was an instructive episode in the hours that immediately followed the earthquake. Even as his people were dying in their thousands General Huseyin Kivrikoglu, chief of the Turkish general staff, took time off to visit Attaturk's tomb in Ankara. After all, he had an important guest to take there: his American opposite number, General Henry H Shelton. General Kivrikoglu did not take him to see the devastation, but spent much of his time in conclave with the US chief of general staff, the US ambassador and other American military officers at army headquarters.

After a few words about how America is "sharing" the sorrow of the Turkish people, General Shelton went on to defend US bombing policy in Iraq. Did he ask why the all-powerful Turkish army did not have a single earthquake rescue brigade, not even a sniffer dog team? It's unlikely. When you ask Middle East nations to be your policeman, their citizens are the last people on the agenda.

Robert Fisk.
INDEPENDENT (London) August 23

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