Metric of misery: Turkey & Syria, one week on. Ukraine, nearly one year in

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL February 13, 2023
Photo by Syed Ali on Unsplash

One week on from the earthquakes that have devastated large swathes of Turkey and Syria. Nearly one year from Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

The world is grieving and helpless, feeling the weight of individual stories of suffering and loss. As author Orhan Pamuk has written (paywall), one is “filled with a sense of guilt and responsibility…The sense of helplessness is crushing”.

The stories are mostly coming in from Turkey, not because it suffers more, but because there is more access for journalists, aid agencies and international rescue teams. Southeastern Turkey is less contested territory than northwest Syria, which is a patchwork of areas controlled by different entities – the bulk is held by the Syrian government of Bashar Al-Assad and the rest is divided up between Turkish-backed Syrian rebels, the Kurdish-led forces and jihadist forces. So, there is a troubling lack of specificity in reports from northwest Syria. All we know, as of February 12, nearly a week after the quake, is that at least 4,500 are dead in Syria.

When the stories from Syria are told, they will probably be much the same as from Turkey. Suffering has no nationality or ethnicity.

In Kahramanmaraş, southern Turkey, there is Mesut Hançer, who was photographed by Adem Altan holding the hand of his 15-year-old daughter, Irmak, who had been killed in her bed when the quake brought down their apartment building.

In Adana, also in the south of Turkey, there are all those children in hospital, too traumatised by events to talk. In that same hospital, the doctor who attends to the young patients, silently nurses her own sorrows. Dr Nursah Keskin is grieving the relatives she lost in the earthquake.

In Iskenderun, a well-preserved window frame with a butterfly print curtain, rests on a mound of rubble. It’s all that’s left of the home of missing 19-year-old Ceyda Ocan, who loved butterflies and life. Her friend weeps outside the crumpled apartment block where Ceyda lived.

The death toll in Turkey and Syria topped 33,000 on February 12.

Meanwhile, across the Black Sea, another tragedy continues to play out. The war in Ukraine is a manmade conflict, not a natural disaster. The toll is high – in lives, tears, infrastructure. As of February 5, 2023, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) verified a total of 7,155 civilian deaths during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Where do we place Turkey and Syria on the global metric of misery? Ahead of Ukraine? Behind it? Side by side? Is it even possible to undertake so troubling a grading? More to the point, is there any reason to do so?

Turns out there might be. We’ll explore that next.