Stanford alumnus Alp Akiş reports with BBC News from earthquake-stricken Turkey

March 3, 2023, 12:02 a.m.

“It’s the disaster of the century,” Stanford alumnus Alp Akiş ‘21 said through a shaky WhatsApp video call. It was 2 a.m. local time in Istanbul. He looked exhausted. 

Akiş had just flown in from Adana, Turkey, where he is working with BBC News in the disaster zone of the recent Turkey-Syria earthquake. Something told me it wasn’t just the late hour at which we spoke that was draining him.

“The extent of the devastation for individual people is unimaginable for people who don’t live through it,” he said. “Even for people who live through it, the scale of the devastation is unimaginable.”

The Feb. 6 earthquake affected 10 cities in southeast Turkey and northern Syria and displaced 1.5 million people. The official death toll has surpassed 50,000, with hundreds of thousands more injured, but Akiş said the experts he has spoken with expect the actual and unofficial number of deaths to be around 200,000.

Born in Istanbul in 1997, Akiş graduated from Stanford in 2021 with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and a minor in Philosophy. During his time on campus, he held research fellowships at the Stanford Internet Observatory and the Immigration Policy Lab. He also wrote a research paper on election security in Turkey through the Abbasi Program for Islamic Studies and studied moral philosophy during a quarter abroad in Oxford.

After finishing his undergraduate degree, he returned to Istanbul to work as a reporter, investigative journalist and then an editor for Medyascope — one of the few remaining independent online news outlets in Turkey. At the same time, he worked as a researcher at Koç University’s Center for Research on Globalization, Peace and Democratic Governance, where he is now pursuing a Ph.D. in Political Science while working as a freelance journalist and translator.

Akiş was at home in Istanbul when the earthquake struck over 500 miles away. He recalls waking up to the news plastered on his morning Twitter feed, and immediately calling friends and loved ones in the affected region to make sure they were safe.

Akiş said that he got a call from a journalist friend asking if he was looking for a job. Less than two days later, he was in Adana — a relatively still-intact city on the outskirts of the disaster zone — working as a local producer for BBC News.

“I quite like being a fixer,” Akiş said with a smile. Fixers — the colloquial title for his current job — are usually local journalists hired by foreign news reporting teams to help translate and organize key logistics for foreign correspondents. “People look at you to get stuff done. And if you get stuff done, it allows for the reporting to happen.”

He spent his first few days on the job with the BBC base team in Adana coordinating logistics for teams reporting from the heart of the earthquake zone. He went on supply runs for things like tents and camping stoves and found Turkish drivers to make deliveries to the teams in Antakya and Gaziantep.

“These are some amazing journalists — maybe like some of the world’s best journalists — coming into Turkey right now to report on this very major event, but they don’t necessarily always have the context or the resources that the people on the ground have,” Akiş said. “I think it’s great that they’re seeking out context and that help and those resources from local reporters.”

After those initial days of organizing from Adana, he traveled to Iskenderun — a city closer to the epicenter of the quake — with BBC correspondent Laura Bicker. Akiş said the fixing he did from Adana “was stressful and meaningful, but also somewhat detached from the tragedy of it.” 

In Iskenderun, it was a different story.

“As you enter the city, you would see buildings on both sides turned into dust,” Akiş said. “You would see columns that fell on cars and just split the cars in half. At that point, more of the reality of it sank in.” He reported seeing rescue operations happening in real-time, driving past injured people waiting to be helped next to collapsed buildings on all sides.

In Iskenderun, Akiş began reporting, finding spots to shoot live shots, securing interviews and translating. He first appeared on air to translate a conversation between Bicker and a group of children at a survivor camp. 

“These people, they felt the most horrific shock, like quite physically,” Akiş recalled from his conversations with survivors. “They were saying that they could still feel the tremors, that they still sometimes have trouble walking straight because they feel the ground shaking.”

Some three thousand tents had been set up at the survivor camp run by Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority just the day before they arrived. He recalled the camp conditions as “surprisingly good,” but then quickly pointed out that it had been the first day that the camp had been put up. He said that, within even the next day or so, conditions could worsen. The trash would start to accumulate, supplies would grow scarce and insufficient, and fighting would break out.

“The toilet situation was very, very bad,” Akiş said, noting that there were six or seven portable bathrooms meant for the entire three-thousand-plus-person camp.

By contrast, Akiş and other foreign correspondent news teams were put up in a hotel in Adana. He confided that he felt a sense of guilt about visiting the disaster-struck area as a reporter after staying in what he considered comfortable accommodations. 

“You’re using all these resources and you’re taking part in all these comforts, and spending the day talking about the misery of the people and how they need every resource they can get,” Akiş said. “There’s something almost hypocritical about that.”

After a long pause, he said, “Perhaps I’m feeling this more as a Turkish person.”

But Akiş said there have been moments of hope, too. He described the excitement of the children at the camp when the BBC crew came to visit. 

“Sometimes you’ll see pictures of reporters smiling in tragic situations and think ‘that’s really inappropriate to be smiling or laughing in front of people who’ve lost their homes,’ but we just played with the kids and we all are smiling and laughing and it was a beautiful moment,” he recalled with a smile on his own face. 

“It’s just impossible to take joy completely out of life,” he said.

Two people pet a dog.
Akiş with a volunteer veterinarian and a dog named Bulut, who after being stuck in the rubble for 10 days and badly wounded, started to walk again on Friday, Feb. 17. (Photo Courtesy of Alp Akiş)

Government Response

The days immediately after the earthquake were all about search and rescue. People sent lots of food, blankets and essential items, but the initial days have passed and the government is now tasked with finding housing for the million and a half displaced people.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has promised to rebuild houses for survivors within one year, but some fear that this ambitious timeline may prioritize speed over safety in construction practices. Others have dismissed Erdoğan’s promise entirely.

“I obviously don’t believe anything he’s ever said and will continue to not believe anything he’s saying now,” a Turkish Stanford student who chose to remain anonymous due to security concerns said. “This country is full of corruption and negligence, which is why so many buildings collapsed in the first place. It’s just gonna continue the same old way. Nothing’s ever gonna be rebuilt fully, nothing ever happens on time.” 

Until permanent housing is found, public universities in Turkey are conducting classes and operations online and students are moving out of their dormitories so that homeless earthquake survivors can move in.

“Why is education the first thing that we are prepared to sacrifice?” Akiş asked. “While there are empty apartment buildings… I don’t want to play the policymaker here, but there are people who direly need accommodation as a result of a disaster, and there are just empty apartments sitting. I think it’s not such a radical idea to put those two together.”

Then there’s the issue of continuing education for displaced and homeless children.

“The solution of the government so far is to just cancel the rest of the school year or make it online,” Akiş explained. “We are talking about children who are living in tents and don’t know where they’ll be living next week. So how are they supposed to benefit from online education?”

Housing and education were not the only aspects of the Turkish government’s response that Akiş was critical of. Following the disaster, Twitter had quickly become a hotspot for locating aid and missing persons after the quake – people trapped under buildings were still able to tweet out their locations and ask for rescue missions – but it also became a medium for criticism of the government’s subpar response. 

While the government tweeted about how active they were on the scene, people on the ground would respond online that there was, in fact, no sign of state search and rescue operations in sight.

In reaction to the criticism it received, the Turkish government placed a social media ban on platforms like Twitter and TikTok for two days during search and rescue efforts, which “definitely, beyond any doubt resulted in hundreds, thousands of deaths,” according to Akiş.

“That was a decision that the government deliberately made between not facing the reality, not facing criticism and people’s lives. They chose the former.” Akiş tried to contain his anger as he spoke. “It’s not only insane, it’s criminal.”

Social media bans following events that put the government under mass scrutiny are not uncommon in Turkey. In fact, during his undergraduate education, Akiş had published a report on the phenomenon with Stanford Internet Observatory that “got me into a bit of trouble,” with the pro-government Turkish media, as he put it (he was called a terrorist on Turkish CNN). 

“Erdoğan’s narrative has been one of a strong state,” he said. “The measure of a strong state is to be able to be present in such moments. And it just wasn’t.

Looking Forward

From here, Akiş said that people in Turkey and Syria need to see a path forward. 

“The people living in the tents in Iskenderun, they will say, ‘we don’t know what’s going to happen in three days,’” he said. “‘We don’t know what’s going to happen in a week.’”

Akiş stressed the importance of sustaining aid. “This is not a sprint,” he said. “It’s a marathon.”

“What happens when foreign aid stops coming through?” He asked. “What happens when, even in Turkey, the political conversation changes and people stop volunteering as much and people stop sending as much?”

And a marathon it is. With over a million left homeless and an already unbearably high death toll that is only expected to keep rising, a new 6.4 tremor struck on Monday Feb. 20, just two weeks after the original earthquake.

Akiş reported that the most recent quake collapsed the last of whatever damaged buildings were still standing, but what was worse than the physical damages were the psychological ones.

“It shifted the mentality of the people from ‘something bad happened to us’ to ‘something bad keeps happening to us,’ ” Akiş recalled from his interviews with people fleeing Antakya after the second earthquake. “A lot of people who lived through the first one were retraumatized by this and, as I said, it shifted the mentality of their homes, their hometowns, as places that are unsafe for them.”

For Turkish students on campus, the quakes have also been a source of turmoil.

“Being far away from home and not being able to help physically, demoralized us all,” Turkish Student Association President Barış Baran Gündoğdu ’23 said in a statement to The Daily. “However, we are a strong community. We helped each other, tried to figure out the ways that we can help our people. Thanks to many good-hearted people we were able to send a good amount of donations to the local organizations who are helping victims.”

Moving forward, Akiş calls for a state-wide moment of reflection on the mechanisms that allowed for this level of devastation, so that history doesn’t repeat itself. “Istanbul is a great danger zone for earthquakes,” he warned. “If a similar thing had happened in Istanbul, I talked about this as the disaster of the century, that will be the disaster of the millennia.”

If a comparable event triggers a fault line in Istanbul, some experts expect 150,000 fatalities. Defne Genç ’24, a Turkish student from Istanbul who has previously written for The Daily, has heard estimates of up to a million. “I also think that is optimistic,” she said. “Turkish buildings are built with little oversight and prioritize speed over regulation, and Istanbul is no exception.”

Akiş said that “every geologist, every academic, every professor is just shouting, ‘Istanbul earthquake is going to happen.’” 

“It’s going to be devastating,” Akiş said. “What are we doing about it?”

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