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  • Emma Louise Alvarez

The Devastating, Staggering Scale of Catastrophe

Wandering beyond the headlines: a glimpse into the dire reality behind the numbers that have come to represent the Syria and Turkey earthquakes.

Recent headlines say the death toll of the Syria and Turkey earthquakes is now more than 50,000. But this figure does not feel tangible - how do you understand the vastness of this number? The impact of human suffering?

The aftermath of the earthquake from over a month ago has been exacerbated by the recent flash floods that have hit earthquake-affected areas. With roads destroyed and cars swept away, the biggest question is about accessibility and how emergency aid is getting to the areas and communities that need it the most.

Amnesty International, in response to the international mobilisation of rescue support and humanitarian aid, has criticised that “aid has been slow" and that the needs of people continue to grow. But while Turkey was quick to receive aid and support, humanitarian organisations faced major obstacles in reaching areas in northern Syria. UN investigators say that parts of Syria have become the "epicentre of neglect" as the hesitancy by the international community regarding the 12-year-long complicated and ongoing civil war held up desperately needed aid.

But it’s more complicated than this, too - the Turkish government has been accused of obstructing aid from reaching predominantly Kurdish neighbourhood areas. Sources in both Syria and Turkey have been accusing each other of ‘politicising aid,’ with both sides vehemently denying these accusations.

Amnesty International calls for human rights to be ‘at the heart’ of crisis response, where greater international and humanitarian efforts need to be dedicated to marginalised communities and people who face increased risks amid forced displacement and accessibility to emergency aid.

"Over a month since the earthquake, the situation in affected regions remains desperate," said Tanya Evans, International Rescue Committee country director for Syria.

In Al-Altarib, in Syria, it took days after the earthquake for help to come. Days of no heavy machinery to help sort through the wreckage of broken buildings. Days of neighbours pulling neighbours from the rubble. When people finally did arrive: a 20-person medical and rescue team from Egypt on day three, and a four-person team from Spain on day four, they had no gear, no equipment and no machinery. Muneer Mustafa, deputy chief of the White Helmets, said they couldn’t get to 60% of the places to which they had been dispatched for search and rescue missions.

We needed equipment more than people,” Mr. Mustafa said. “We already had people.”

A New York Times headline reads as follows “A Girl Trapped Under Fallen Concrete. A Man Unsure of What to Do.” The story isolates and focuses on one life and the impossible hope of waiting for help. Here, the aftermath of the earthquakes is not defined by statistics and politics but, rather, by the impact of human suffering.

The author Orhan Pamuk was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006, so it is unsurprising that his words on the “crushing sense of helplessness” offer an almost agonising insight into the ‘realities’ in Syria and Turkey. However, an important distinction must be made. Language can only ever have the power to convey a reality; a particular version of the experience - a version of truth - but never actually show the full truth behind an experience. So while Pamuk allows us to start to understand the depth of ‘50,000 lives lost’ by focusing on one life stuck in rubble, it still remains mostly out of reach to understand the staggering scale of catastrophe.

But at least the opportunity exists - to continue to understand the ‘true’ reality of a situation, and it traces back to the use of language in reporting on crises and catastrophes around the world. How intangible they feel, how far away. The girl in the rubble deserved not to be a statistic. She deserved to be more than a nameless girl shared in a caption-less video.

“No amount of statistics can convey the bottomless agony of the loss of a child. No words, especially the dry vocabulary of official reports, can capture what suffering is.” - Carne Ross, The Independent Diplomat

But amid the search for further bodies or lives that might be saved and plans on how to structure the financial aid into channels of organising, restructuring, and rebuilding, nearly 200 people have been arrested in Turkey over allegations of “poor building construction.” A recent CNN article questions to what extent this was a “man-made disaster,” referring to the scale of damage and the fact that building codes were supposedly tightened and enforced after previous disasters.

But then it’s also only right to question the role of ‘construction amnesties.’ For a fee, buildings that had not passed earthquake compliance standards could purchase these ‘safety certifications’ without a further obligation for developers to ensure their properties were brought up to code. These certificates could be bought and displayed; ‘safety’ and ‘compliance’ are mere terms to be re-defined based on convenience.

The drone footage of the scale of destruction shows hundreds of buildings collapsed, but the silent question rising from the rubble stands in stark contrast with the buildings that are still standing, seemingly untouched. The evidence is there. However, acknowledging this, structural engineers have commented that the Syria and Turkey earthquakes would “challenge even code-compliant buildings,” where other collapsed properties date back to older and perhaps outdated sets of standards.

But it all traces back to how we choose to learn about catastrophes: what the main subject of the headlines is, what data is referenced throughout the articles we consume, and whether we choose to, ultimately, let numbers summarise the significance of human experience. And even then, when we wander beyond the headlines and try to understand the staggering scale of catastrophe, pain, and loss, words fail. There are no words left to describe the experiences of loss and structural injustice.

The best thing we can do, ‘we’ being the people distanced from crises, privileged in safety, is to create a space. A space for all the numbers, all the words, the photos, and political opinions, to accumulate and exist. A space to dissect and try to assemble the information which lets us glimpse at the ‘true’ reality behind catastrophe. A space to feel, even briefly, the impact of human suffering. That’s how we understand the devastating, staggering scale of catastrophe.


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