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Turkey's government is under pressure for its response to the earthquake


In Turkey and Syria, rescue efforts are turning up grim results four days after an earthquake devastated large parts of both countries. The death toll is now more than 19,000. Tens of thousands more are injured, and no one knows how many more people are still buried under the rubble. Meanwhile, many survivors are sleeping in makeshift shelters or outside in the cold. Any country would strain to cope with a disaster on this scale, but some are starting to criticize the Turkish government's response. NPR's Peter Kenyon joins us now from Adana in southern Turkey. Peter, before we get to the politics, rescues and the conditions there, what have you been seeing?

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, I watched rescue workers making huge efforts, trying to work their way through piles of concrete rubble to reach survivors now trapped for a fourth day. Yesterday, rescuers in one Adana neighborhood finally pulled enough rubble away to reach a place where they had been hearing voices of survivors calling for help. But by the time they got there, they had died. The job is immense - I mean, thousands of buildings destroyed over hundreds of miles, damage to infrastructure. There's the need for safe drinking water, food and shelter. It's just a massive task.

MARTÍNEZ: Now that it's been a few days, though, are relief efforts starting to get momentum at all?

KENYON: Yes, it's beginning to take effect - aid and offers of help beginning to arrive, including international rescue efforts. Field hospitals are being set up both here and in northern Syria. In Syria, local media say some 300,000 people are displaced. The U.N. says it may be able to get supplies into even parts of northern Syria held by anti-government rebels.

MARTÍNEZ: Peter, there's been a debate about the response of the Turkish government. Tell us about that.

KENYON: Well, yes. Amid the desperate struggle to survive, there are criticisms being leveled at the government. After two days of relative silence, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited some hard-hit areas yesterday. He's due to visit more today. In Hatay Province, where entire neighborhoods were reduced to rubble - more than 3,300 people confirmed dead so far - Erdogan did acknowledge, quote, "shortcomings" in the government's initial response, but he also blamed winter weather conditions and destroyed infrastructure, including airport runways.

MARTÍNEZ: When it comes to Erdogan, I mean, does all this pose a threat to his longtime political dominance?

KENYON: Well, that is an interesting question that will probably rise higher once this recovery is more underway. The opposition secular party's already taking direct aim at the president. The mayor of Istanbul called it a fear of truth and weakness, the government response. Opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu was even more harsh. Here's part of what he said in a video posted to Twitter.


KEMAL KILICDAROGLU: (Speaking Turkish).

KENYON: He's calling the government a failure, saying, quote, "they don't know how to run a state. I swear they don't know how. They don't know how. Let me be very clear," he goes on. "If there's one person responsible for this process, it is Erdogan." Meanwhile, the government is starting to build cases against people who criticize the government response. And as we go down the road, more questions will rise. What does this mean for presidential elections due in a matter of months? Will they be held? Will they be postponed? If so, what does that mean for Erdogan's political future and the future of Turkey's democracy?

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon in southern Turkey. Peter, thank you.

KENYON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.