Unprecedented wildfires erupted in late July on the coastline of the Mediterranean and Aegean regions, burning nearly 100,000 hectares of forest. The destruction claimed the lives of nine people, while thousands of wild and domestic animals were charred and thousands of acres of farmland turned to ash. It is the biggest disaster of its kind in the known history of Turkey.
Authorities literally sat and watched the forests in flames, the turning of the idyllic tourist coastline into a wasteland with traumatic effects on people and wildlife. During the long ‘week of inferno’, the fires were met with limited response, with the country’s only firefighting fleet running aground and rescue and relief efforts by municipalities and volunteers blocked by the central government.
All the government spokesmen could offer was the rehousing of the devastated villagers and compensation for their slain cattle. Restrictions were imposed on the news of the disaster in the press, and the media close to the government and President Erdoğan blamed the inconsistent response to the extinguishing of the fires on the CHP municipalities in the burned regions.
In line with the official discourse, ganged out government supporters have been seen attacking CHP deputies, volunteers and journalists in the region. However, the verdict of traumatized residents of the affected areas regarding the government’s response to the disaster ranges from negligence to allegations of intent. For many, the Erdogan administration’s inaction is indicative of its intent to punish them for their oppositional electoral behaviour. Rumours are also spreading throughout the burning expanse that international companies have been trying hard for a long time to obtain mining licenses, which may have been possible after the fires. Also, the devastated area is well suited for the construction of luxury hotels and other tourist facilities, which would be against conservation laws if they remained forested.
Fires and hate crimes
The fires took place at a time when racist attacks against Kurds, especially seasonal workers in Central and Western Anatolia, were escalating in parallel with the rising anti-HDP rhetoric among the ruling circles. As the general election date approaches, the government has been threatening to legally shut down the pro-Kurdish HDP, especially since last April, and seeks to de-legitimate Kurdish politics.
In June, an armed man raided HDP’s office in Izmir and killed party worker Deniz Poyraz. In July, 15 bar associations of predominantly Kurdish provinces drew attention to the increase in racist attacks against Kurds, highlighting the causality between these attacks and the intensification of the government’s language and policies of violence towards Kurdish politics.
While the authorities could not confirm any arson cases, pro-government and far-right circles tried to politicise the fires by blaming ‘terrorism’ and thus the Kurds. The public was made to believe that the perpetrators were from a Kurdish youth gang called ‘Children of Fire’, supposedly affiliated with the PKK or HDP and acting on the orders of Greece. The mainstream newspaper Daily Sabah, which functions as one of many government bulletins, appeared on July 29 with the headline, ‘Arson-loving PKK prime suspect as forest fires hit Turkey’.
Erdogan’s self-appointed ‘national socialist’ adviser, Doğu Perinçek, recommended that the HDP should be closed in order to effectively fight forest fires. This hate speech against the Kurds has spread widely in social media and mass media, and although the authorities refrain from confirming these claims, they do not officially deny them either.
The immediate outcome of this racist manipulation was the emergence of armed ‘vigilantes’ in areas devastated by fires to set up roadblocks in the countryside carrying out identity checks. Several Kurdish youths have been lynched and seriously injured by these mobs, in various provinces. In Konya, seven members of a Kurdish family were killed in their home by armed assailants. The family had been attacked by an armed gang in May, who told them, “We won’t let you live here”. Authorities downplay the racial motivation in the massacre, highlighting a longstanding dispute between the two families. There is also no official action to stop ‘vigilant’ lynch mobs.
The racist hysteria fuelled by the pro-government circles perversely hoped that the stigmatisation, murder and torture of Kurds would compensate for a natural disaster. The government, on the other hand, must have seen hate speech, racial violence and polarisation as tools to curb popular criticism. Indeed, critical comments from the opposition were often associated with ‘terrorism’. Terrorists (Kurds and HDP) were burning forests to cause turmoil in the country, and the main opposition was serving terrorist ends by criticizing the government’s incompetence.
Despite the restrictions on the media, heated debates over the fires on the western and southern coasts remained the number one item on Turkey’s political agenda for two weeks. Meanwhile, the government’s attitude towards two similar disasters in the Kurdish provinces went unnoticed. In Dersim, the authorities interrupted municipal fire crews and volunteers who sought to put out forest fires, and in the flooded Başkale district of Van no official rescue and aid work was carried out. While AKP spokesmen and opinion leaders in the media hold the Kurds responsible for the fires in the west and south of Turkey, it can be said that the authorities were consciously inactive beyond incompetence during the floods and forest fires in the east.
Floods and xenophobia
The ‘summer of disasters’ continued with the worst flooding ever in the Black Sea region in the north. As a result of the floods that affected three provinces, more than a hundred people lost their lives, thousands were evacuated and many villages were left without electricity. Bozkurt district of Kastamonu province, which is evident to have been established on a stream bed, was the district worst affected by the flood. The entire town centre was literally annihilated by the flooding, with the official death toll at 74.
Contrary to their indifference and incompetence towards the fires in the south, the authorities launched a swift and effective rescue and relief operation in the face of the floods in the north. This approach is thought to be related with the difference in the voter profile as well as the greater risk of loss of human life. Opposition voters make up the majority of the population in the west and south, while the majority of Black Sea region electorate vote for AKP and MHP.
In the face of the flood, the opposition’s criticism focused more on the causes. In addition to urban planning errors manifested as settlements on stream beds, hydroelectric power plants and dams built against nature throughout the Black Sea region under AKP rule are seen as the main culprit of floods.
Local protests against the construction of hydroelectric power plants have been systematically suppressed using violence. Turkey’s green movement claims that the state has been committing an ecocide, especially in the Black Sea region. Due to these human activities, there has been a tangible increase in the number of floods in recent years in the northern provinces, where the Black Sea climate, which is rainy in all seasons, is seen. The opposition also argues that the true extent of the devastation caused by the floods and the real death toll are hidden from the public.
While the flood disaster continued, the opposition, with its right and left components, focused its attention on the recently increasing flood of refugees, especially from Afghanistan. According to official figures, there are currently close to 4 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. Although there are no clear figures about the total number of refugees, it is estimated that about ten percent of the country’s population is made up of foreigners with temporary refugee status. The soft refugee policy of the AKP is thought to have had a major impact on the loss of votes in the last local elections, especially in big cities. Seeing the hope of political gain in the xenophobic reaction of the public, the centre-left CHP started to highlight the refugee issue for the upcoming general elections.
A CHP spokesman declared in July that ‘Syrian and Afghan refugees are Turkey’s number one survival problem.’ The statement came when CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu promised the repatriation of all Syrian refugees in two years of their rule. Encouraged by their leader, the mayor of the northern province of Bolu announced that he would charge a tenfold fee for water bills of ‘foreigners’.
The issue of immigrants further came to the fore with groups of Afghan youths entering Turkey from Iran, whom Kılıçdaroğlu insulted by saying, ‘They come in herds’. The CHP and the right-wing opposition claim that this influx was the result of a secret deal between Biden and Erdogan. Hate speech by opposition parties has encouraged, if not triggered, rising xenophobic tendencies on the left and right. The slogan ‘I don’t want refugees in my country’ has become the slogan of the opposition in the mass media, on social media and on the streets. Amid the fires and floods that shook the country, another racist wave was on the rise.
The first result of this manipulation was the August 12 Ankara pogrom, an archetypal special operations event. The scenario that had previously been staged in the 6/7 September (1955) Istanbul pogrom, 1978 Maraş and 1979 Çorum massacres, and most recently in the 1993 Sivas massacre was implemented.
Fascist gangs brought from outside the district landed in the Altındağ district of Ankara. Local people were agitated and gathered with anti-refugee slogans. The police were seen leading and accompanying the crowd. Syrian shops and businesses were attacked, destroyed and looted. Refugees in the neighbourhood, including women and children, were beaten, harassed and terrorized by mobs.
Despite this tragic event, the opposition continues to fuel xenophobic rhetoric. Lastly, the CHP hung a poster on the wall of its headquarters in Ankara containing the popular motto “The border is honour”, suggesting that borders be closed to refugees. What is worse is that this slogan, besides its xenophobic and ultra-nationalist connotations, is sexist and femicide laudatory. The term ‘namus’, translated into English as ‘honour’, includes virginity in common usage, and hundreds of women fall victim to honour killings every year in Muslim societies.
The heyday of demagogues
It is not difficult to predict that this dangerous campaign, which obviously started with the motive of winning votes by inciting popular xenophobia, will lead to more violent and traumatic events if it continues in this way. The nationalist disorder in the genetic codes of the CHP and Turkey’s left, combined with the ideological stance of the right-wing parties with which it has to ally, can lead to a mutual provocative reaction with widespread anti-refugee xenophobia among the electorate. The possible consequences of this dangerous amalgam started to show itself with the Altındağ pogrom.
The ruling AKP, on the other hand, is trying to divert attention from the devastating results of the environmental massacre that they are responsible for by inciting the public against the Kurds through hate speech.
As a result, a perverse picture emerges in which the Kurds are blamed for the forest fires and the flood is almost blamed on Syrian and Afghan refugees. Perhaps the best description of the current situation, where society is dragged into a collective crisis of hatred and hysteria, was best described by the renowned American writer Arthur Miller:
‘These surges of intolerance usually come where there is a social dislocation beforehand. They don’t come to a healthy society but a society which is sick and it has run out of solutions and it doesn’t know where to look. That is when the demagogue can get up and start evoking vague dangers from vague quarters.’