Faculty addressed the devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Syria in a panel discussion on Feb. 14. Approximately 70 students attended, alongside a handful of other faculty and community members.
The event was hosted by Professor of History and Axinn Center Co-Director Febe Armanios, Associate Professor of Political Science Sebnem Gumuscu and Assistant Professor of Economics Cihan Artunc. The panel touched upon a wide variety of topics pertaining to the earthquakes, with professors extending analysis beyond the initial time frame of the disaster and back into the various socio-political and economic eras leading up to the tragedy. In doing so the professors illustrated the various preventable factors leading to the destruction and ongoing turmoil.
Each panelist spoke for 10 to 15 minutes before opening the discussion to audience questions and input.
Speaking first, Armanios established her connection to the affected region. She is linked both personally through her husband, who is Turkish, and through the Middlebury community writ large, citing Middlebury’s schools abroad in the Middle East and other involvements in the region. She urged the college community to think of itself as braided into the struggles of those most affected. Through solidarity and empathy, Armanios explained, everyone can play a role in alleviating the immense pain of the damage done and what is still to come.
Armanios then gave a numerical overview of the earthquakes, explaining how in the early morning of Feb. 6, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck eastern Turkey and was followed in quick succession by a 7.6 magnitude tremor. Over 120 aftershocks were felt in other regions of Turkey and Syria, and the affected area spans 300 miles.
A week after the panel occurred, a second earthquake with a magnitude of 6.4 struck portions of southern Turkey, resulting in the deaths of six people and approximately 300 more injured.
The death toll is currently 46,000 and is expected to rise.
In her conclusion, Armanios spoke on the politicization of aid distribution, noting how the scarcity of disaster response resources in poorly funded regions is exacerbated by federal discrimination on the basis of political orientation or minority status.
Speaking next, Gumuscu also started on a personal note — the earthquakes of the previous week resurfaced the trauma of the August 1999 earthquake in Turkey. For her, Gumuscu explained, witnessing death and destruction abound in all directions in her homeland evoked memories of that pain, and provided an excruciating reminder of how little has changed since the country’s bureaucratic and infrastructural failures were exposed by the earthquakes in 1999.
Focusing primarily on the changes to the federal government in the intermediary time between 1999 and today, Gumuscu relayed the sequential and numerous failures of the Turkish government that heavily exacerbated the likelihood of extensive damage from earthquakes. She highlighted how, since President Recep Tyyip Erdogan’s election in 2003, the Turkish government has undermined civil society and centralized the Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD), which functions better if decentralized.
Additionally, the Turkish federal leadership redesigned the media landscape of the country, forbidding the free flow of information from the press to the people and instead began to warp narratives to their agenda; this is why, she said, the primary current of information streaming out of Turkey is comprised of social media images and videos.
Speaking last, Artunc echoed Gumuscu’s recollections of the pains of August 1999 and how they have begun to ricochet again inside the collective psyche of all Turkish people, both at home and abroad.
Artunc provided a concise chronology of the Turkish economic growth since the 2001 financial crisis, touching upon the seeming miraculousness of the expansion and giving insight into how that growth was dishonest and cheap.
The common theme that all three professors shared at the panel was that of systemic dysfunction: that the extreme collapse stemming from the earthquake was preventable, and tens of thousands have died and countless more were rendered homeless because of bureaucratic ineptitude and ignorance.