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Turkey – Syria: Erdogan’s day of reckoning looms in the aftermath of earthquake   

 

Over many years during my time as a journalist I’ve reported on three earthquakes. Afghanistan in 1998, Kashmir in 2005 and Haiti in 2010. Each and every one of them is indelibly etched in my memory, each and every one of them hitting countries and communities often already on the brink and vulnerable through poverty, civil strife, or war.  

I’ll never forget arriving at the small city of Balakot in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan which sat at the epicentre of the Kashmir quake. In less than a minute 16,000 people had lost their lives out of a population of about 50,000. In total some 86,000 people were killed.  

I can still recall seeing the limbs of the dead protruding from under pancaked houses, how whole mountainsides surrounding the city had sheared off and the eerie blood red colour of the river that ran through the city resulting from minerals released from the ground after the tectonic rupture. There was the terrible smell of death too and the miracle of watching a toddler being rescued after days under the rubble. 

As with every quake I’ve covered there is a grim familiarity also in the way events in the immediate aftermath of such disasters play out. There are always the questions raised over building standards, emergency provision and failures over the speedy delivery of aid.  

And so it is once again after the world was confronted by the terrible scenes coming out of Turkey and Syria where over 20,000 people are dead following a magnitude 7.8 earthquake that slammed into the region last Monday.  

People speaking of earthquakes often refer to them as “natural disasters, but this is only part of the explanation. 

It was Cameron Sinclair founder of the Worldchanging Institute an organisation that focuses on architectural and design solutions to humanitarian crises who once said that “earthquakes don’t kill people, bad buildings do.” But this too is only part of the story. Earthquakes and their aftermaths play out in other ways too not least politically. 

While last week’s quakes were historic in scale and would be difficult for the best prepared government to manage, the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has come under particularly sharp criticism.  

Writing in the Financial Times in the aftermath of the quake the Turkish novelist Elif Shafak observed that “what made it so deadly and the suffering so immense was not nature itself… it was human-built systems of inequality and corruption.” 

Shafak is far from being a lone voice in her criticism. Other critics have pointed to how national funds meant for natural disasters just like this quake were instead spent on motor way construction projects managed by associates of Erdogan and his coalition government. 

After a catastrophic earthquake in north-western Turkey killed more than 18,000 people in 1999, authorities imposed an “earthquake solidarity tax” meant to corral billions of dollars’ worth of disaster prevention and relief. 

One of the taxes, paid to this day by mobile phone operators and radio and TV, has brought some 88bn lira (£3.8bn) into state coffers. It was even increased to 10% two years ago. But the government has never fully explained where the money has been spent. In short, Turkey’s reliance on construction-driven economic growth, cronyism and willingness to ignore its own building standards have all played a part here.  

According to Pelin Pınar Giritlioglu, Istanbul head of the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects, Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) periodically granted “construction amnesties” to buildings that blatantly defied earthquake regulations. Up to 75,000 buildings were given such amnesties in the earthquake zone alone, says Giritlioglu.  

To make matters worse Erdogan’s centralisation of Turkey’s government has meant a plethora of restrictions on how individual cities and aid organisations can operate in the country making it almost impossible for other organisations, civil society and local leaders to actually help thus hampering overall rescue efforts. 

Right now politics might seem far off for those still looking for victims amidst the rubble and there is truth in the view that this is not the time for finger pointing but getting help to people who need it. But Erdogan is if nothing else very much a political animal and knows that a June election is looming. So too perhaps is a day of political reckoning. 

 

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Ukraine: Russia’s winter offensive and Elon Musk’s Starlink 

 

These days it seems he is never far away from controversial headlines. And so it was again last week when Elon Musk’s SpaceX Silicon Valley company announced its plans to block Ukrainian troops from using critical Starlink satellite technology with Ukrainian drones that are a key component of their fight against Russia. 

SpaceX has privately shipped truckloads of Starlink terminals to Ukraine, allowing the country’s military to communicate by plugging them in and connecting them with the nearly 4,000 satellites SpaceX has launched into low-Earth orbit so far. 

Governments including the United States and France have paid for other shipments of Starlink terminals on top of those funded privately by SpaceX.  

It was last week on Twitter – another company Musk owns – that he said that SpaceX was “not allowing Starlink to be used for long-range drone strikes.”  

This was followed up by a statement from Gwynne Shotwell, Starlink’s president and chief operating officer, who said at a conference in Washington that Starlink was “never meant to be weaponised.” 

“We know the military is using them for comms, and that’s ok. But our intent was never to have them use it for offensive purposes,” Shotwell said. 

She went on to say that Starlink had taken steps to curtail the Ukrainian military’s use of the technology for controlling drones, something that not unsurprisingly did not go down well in Kyiv.  

Mykhailo Podolyak, a political adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, was among a number of Ukrainian officials who used Twitter to criticise the decision. 

“A year of Ukrainian resistance & companies have to decide: Either they are on the side of Ukraine & the right to freedom, and don’t seek ways to do harm. Or they are on Russia’s side & its ‘right’ to kill & seize territories,” Podolyak wrote. “SpaceX (Starlink) & Mrs. Shotwell should choose a specific option,” he added. 

Starlink, which beams internet signals from space to portable satellite dishes on the ground, has been a crucial weapon in Ukraine’s defence against Russia, allowing drones to monitor Russian troop manoeuvres and adapt their tactics on the ground. 

The SpaceX decision came in a week that also saw more Russian strikes against Ukrainian cities and energy structure. During the attack, Russian forces fired 71 cruise missiles, seven Iranian-supplied Shahed attack drones and 35 S-300 missiles, normally used for air defence, Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, chief of Ukraine’s general staff confirmed. Ukrainian air defences shot down 61 of the cruise missiles and five of the drones, he added. 

The Starlink setback for Ukraine came too as the country made urgent appeals for more ammunition and artillery “immediately” warning it is running short of stocks to defend against a new Russian offensive that Kyiv fears is imminent.  Ukraine is estimated to be firing more than 5,000 artillery rounds every day, equal to a smaller European country’s orders in an entire year in peacetime. With or without Starlink the months ahead are set to be tough and testing times for Ukrainian forces. 

 

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Nicaragua: Ortega deports his critics to the US 

 

There was a time when Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega and his Sandinista Party (FSLN) were the darlings of the global left. But those days are long since over as Ortega’s increasingly authoritarian regime has intensified its crackdown on political opponents some of whom were once fellow Sandinista members who helped overthrow the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Debayle back in 1979.  

Having distorted the Sandinista tradition, Ortega has sought to quell dissent by targeting opponents and protestors. Ortega’s security forces attacked demonstrators during the 2018 protests resulting in the death of 300 people and 100,000 Nicaraguans fleeing the country. Over the past few days however in a surprise move, Nicaragua has freed almost all of its political prisoners. More than 200 were put on a plane and flown to Washington, D.C. 

Ortega later described the surprise release as a push to expel criminal provocateurs and “agents” of foreign powers who sought to undermine Nicaragua, while the United States hailed it as a “constructive step” toward improving human rights. 

In a Thursday evening speech. Ortega confirmed the prisoners’ release and said his government did not ask for anything in return.  

“We do not want any trace of those who are mercenaries to remain here in our country,” he said. 

The freed political prisoners include five former presidential hopefuls who sought to challenge the increasingly authoritarian Ortega in a 2021 election only to be jailed in an unprecedented dragnet and criminalising of political dissent in the Central American country. Erika Guevara, Americas’ director for rights group Amnesty International, credited a sustained pressure campaign over years for helping bring about the release of prisoners.  

She pointed to “courageous and relentless condemnation” of Ortega’s repression both inside Nicaragua and overseas as a catalyst that generated global awareness of abuses. 

The Biden administration has imposed sanctions on the government and family of Ortega in recent years, and as The New York Times reported the prisoner release is likely revive a long-standing debate about whether sanctions work in Washington’s favour. 

But while recent events may bolster the argument that sanctions are effective, human rights activists say they remain wary. For now it might have lifted internal political pressure on the Ortega regime but there remains precious little sign of it being willing to loosen its grip on power, permit political dissent and hold free and fair elections. 

 

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The Netherlands: Amsterdam’s red light district makeover 

 

According to the city council certain busiest neighbourhoods have become “unliveable.” Among them is De Wallen perhaps better known as the Red Light District.  

The answer it seems is to weed out the weed as Amsterdam moves to ban the smoking of cannabis on the streets.  

For years The Netherland’s capital city known for its ancient canals, art scene, restaurants and historic buildings, has also attracted tourists because of its liberal attitude toward prostitution and drug use. 

“Some businesses misuse Amsterdam’s image to sell it as a place of ‘unlimited possibilities,” Deputy Mayor Sofyan Mbarki said in a recent statement. “As a result, some groups of visitors think of it as a city where anything goes. This kind of tourism, as well as offerings specifically targeting these groups, is not considered desirable by the Municipal Executive.” 

From mid-May smoking joints on the narrow, often jam packed streets of Amsterdam’s inner city will be outlawed. To show they mean what they say the authorities have stressed that if the nuisance persists, they may ban smoking on terraces of “coffeeshops,” places that sell cannabis, hash and other edible marijuana products that are decriminalised in the country.  

Booze too will be restricted, with stores in the inner city banned from selling alcohol after 4 p.m. Thursday to Sunday and drinking in public will be forbidden. 

In mid-May, bars, restaurants and cafes will close at 2 a.m., rather than the currently mandated 3 a.m. weekday and 4 a.m. weekend times. Sex work establishments will also see their hours change as a result of the new legislation, and will now be required to close up shop at 3 a.m., rather than 6 a.m. 

It’s all a result of the “We Live Here” campaign which has been used to make visitors aware that ordinary people live in the Red Light District and helped put pressure on the local authorities to act.  

Many hoteliers in the city too seem to approve of the moves including the majority of the members of the Luxury Hotels of Amsterdam, an association of 24 four- and five-star hotels according to its chairman Remco Groenhuijzen. 

“We should get rid of the image of sex, drugs and rock and roll,” Groenhuijzen was quoted recently as saying. “It’s not bad that we have a city that’s a little bit on the edge. But that’s not a free pass to come here and misbehave.” Amsterdam’s makeover it seems has been given the green light this time round. 



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