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Turkey: Violence against alleged looters in earthquake zone

February 16, 2023

In Hatay, grief has turned to fear and anger. Videos are circulating online of violence against alleged looters. How safe is the situation in the earthquake zone?

Shadowy view of people and machinery
As rescue efforts continued in Hatay, police accused people of lootingImage: Erhan Sevenler/AA/picture alliance

In one video that has been posted online, two policemen can be seen beating and insulting four men lying on the floor, one half-naked, the others wearing dark pants and jackets. "People are lying under the rubble and you bastards are stealing noodles? We accepted you into our country and what are you doing? Stealing?" One of the policeman blasts pepper spray into the faces of the helpless men. Offscreen, a voice says: "Break their thieving hands."

There are more and more such videos cropping up on the internet. 

But so far, the Turkish Human Rights Association (IHD) has only registered a few cases of violence  —  almost all of them from Hatay, Turkey's southernmost province.

DW reporters on the ground have reported on the destruction of unimaginable proportions. They say that the provincial capital Antakya looks as if it has been a battlefield for years. Those who can are leaving. However, many of those whose family members are buried under the rubble are still waiting for their bodies to be recovered.

According to the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD), more than 12,000 heavy machines have been deployed across the earthquake zone to help clear rubble, steel and concrete. People also urgently need winter-proof tents, heaters, generators, water, food and medicine. The lack of running water and latrines is making the situation even more difficult for survivors and aid workers. In some places, residents have complained about the stench of burst sewage pipes mixed with the smell of corpses. 

 Hatay, aerial view of a destroyed city, toppled buildings
Hatay was badly damaged in the earthquakeImage: DHA

Amid an already difficult situation, right-wing populists and nationalists have been agitating against refugees and other minorities. One claim that was posted online along with images of packs of condoms read as follows: "A Syrian has looted a supermarket and stolen condoms." 

Other internet users argue that Turkey is not even able to provide for its own citizens and thus the refugees should leave.

'We are not looters'

As grief turns to anger and despair, innocent people are being mistaken for looters. 

In one video that was also posted online, two men from Hatay recounted how they had been beaten up. "We were on our way home from the pharmacy," the older man said. "Security guards stopped us. We were holding medicine for our parents in our hands. They thought we were looters and beat us up. Afterwards, they just left us on the street like that." The deep red mark of a baton was clear on his forehead and his right eye was bloodshot. "Please delete all videos that portray us as looters!" they pleaded. "We are not looters." 

Five young Kurds from Diyarbakir reportedly had a similar experience. According to human rights activists, they came to the earthquake zone to help as volunteers and had documents to prove this. But they said that after helping out with the rescue efforts in Adiyaman province, they were taken to a police station, beaten and left behind in another town, naked.

Pixelated faces of two people
Accused of looting, these two men were beaten so badly they ended up in hospitalImage: Privat

The Progressive Lawyers' Association (CHD) in Turkey has drawn attention to a case that ended in death. Two brothers, alleged looters, were arrested in the Altinözü municipality of Hatay at the weekend. One of them died in custody. His father, who had to identify the body the next day, told the CHD that his son had broken ribs and a broken nose, and that he had died of a blood clot. The other son was still in hospital and he, too, had reportedly been tortured.

Lynching of refugees

In a video that was posted on Twitter before being removed on Monday night, three alleged refugees could be seen lying beside a white van on a street, apparently dead. An offscreen voice said: "The looters got what they deserved." A close-up showed a dead man's bloodied eyes staring into the sky.

Pointing out that torture is a crime against humanity and has no statute of limitations, the IHD has urged the Turkish authorities to find the perpetrators immediately and bring them to justice.

Tense security situation

Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said that there had been 75 cases of looting in the earthquake zone over the weekend, adding that 57 suspects had been taken into custody. He said that custody in cases of robbery and looting had been extended to four days, up from the usual maximum of 24 hours.

Süleyman Soylu
Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu accused an Austrian rescue team of spreading lies Image: Muhammed Selim Korkutata/AA/picture alliance

At the same time, Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu said there had been no looting at all — and that the only problem was the spread of lies. He also accused an Austrian rescue team that had temporarily suspended its work over the weekend for security reasons of spreading disinformation about Turkey. Michael Bauer, a spokesman for the Austrian Defense Ministry, wrote on Twitter that the rescuers of the Austrian Armed Forces had quickly been able to continue to work under the protection of Turkish soldiers.

In response to a DW inquiry, a spokesman for Germany's Agency for Technical Relief (THW) said that, for their part, German rescue teams in Hatay had stayed mostly in their base camp for safety reasons, only leaving for specific rescue missions. He added that the teams had not been threatened and had carried their work without danger. 

Foreign rescue workers started leaving the area on Monday as hope waned of people being found alive.

Group of people walking with suitcases through an airport terminal, large sing reads, Arrivals.
German rescuers arrived back in Germany on MondayImage: Kadir Ilboga/Anadolu Agency/picture alliance

This article was originally written in German.

Elmas Topcu, sitting next to a bookcase full of books
Elmas Topcu Stories on Turkey, German-Turkish relations and political and religious groups linked to Turkey.@topcuelmas