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Expert is 'angry' at pace of government response in Turkey

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Search and rescue efforts are still underway in southeastern Turkey and northern Syria after a powerful earthquake and multiple aftershocks devastated the region, killing thousands of people. One of the hardest-hit areas is the province of Hatay in southern Turkey. Gonul Tol is there. She is normally based in Washington, where she is the director of the Turkey program at the Middle East Institute.

Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us during this incredibly difficult time.

GONUL TOL: Thanks for having me.

CHANG: I first just want to ask you, are you OK? Where were you when the earthquake hit?

TOL: I was a few hours from Hatay. I was in Mersin with my family, with my sister and her 4-year-old daughter, where we also felt the earthquake. It was, like, hit pretty strongly in Mersin as well.

CHANG: And how is your family in the region doing at the moment?

TOL: Unfortunately, we lost relatives, who were trapped under the rubbles.

CHANG: Oh, my - I'm so sorry.

TOL: We waited for hours. We lost many of them.

CHANG: I'm so, so sorry.

TOL: Thank you.

CHANG: Can you just describe for us right now what it looks like where you are? When you step out and you go outside - can you just paint me a picture?

TOL: It looks like a war zone. There are rubbles everywhere. Almost every other building collapsed, people crying. There are dead bodies on the streets, people screaming for help. It's a tragedy, really. And the city that I've known and loved for many years is just not there anymore.

CHANG: Well, what kind of response are you seeing so far from authorities on the ground, either local authorities, national authorities?

TOL: Well, nothing. I was - Turkey was hit by another very powerful earthquake in 1999. And I was there at the time. I was a student in college, and that was in northwestern Turkey. It was equally devastating. And at the time, newspapers that are now pro-government criticized the state agencies' slow response - it's - their inefficiency in delivering aid and not being responsive to the needs of people. And the ruling AKP came to power after that tragedy in 2002. And President Erdogan's AKP came to power basically promising a more efficient governance, a government that was in tune with the demands and needs of the people. And he also legitimized switching the country's parliamentary system to an all-powerful presidential system without any checks and balances by saying this would make responding to crises and solving country's problems faster. Unfortunately, that was not what I saw in Hatay yesterday.

CHANG: Well, speaking of President Erdogan, he has declared a three-month state of emergency in the country. What do you make of that declaration, given the amount, the extent of damage that you are personally seeing right now?

TOL: Well, I don't think that response is going to solve the problems. He's under a lot of criticism right now, because from what I saw in Hatay, there were no government agencies. There were no civil society organizations, no rescue workers on the ground. Basically, people were trying to dig out loved ones trapped under the rubble with bare hands. And I think that's the most striking picture of Erdogan's new Turkey, where institutions are not there anymore. He destroyed institutions, and he did not put anything in their place. And I think that was the picture that I saw, and that was the picture thousands of victims saw on the first day of this tragedy.

CHANG: If you could speak directly to the president right now, President Erdogan, tell me what you would say.

TOL: I'm angry. I'm angry that people died. I'm angry that there were no state agencies there. I'm angry that people were left alone. And earthquakes happen. But I think those people did not have to die if Erdogan and his government had done more.

CHANG: Gonul Tol is the director of the Turkey program at the Middle East Institute. She was speaking to us from Hatay province, one of the areas hardest hit in Turkey.

Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us, Gonul. And again, I am so deeply sorry for your loss.

TOL: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD AND GHOSTFACE KILLAH'S "EXPERIENCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
William Troop
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
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