Greeks put politics aside to rush aid to Turkey

Municipal workers load a truck with humanitarian aid outside of the municipality of Athens on February 10, 2023. - Hundreds of centres for collecting humanitarian aid opened in Athens and across Greece, where citizens and companies can donate goods for the quake-stricked people of Turkey and Syria, following two massive earthquakes several hours apart on February 6, in which some 22,000 people so far have have perished. (Photo by Louisa GOULIAMAKI / AFP)

Aimilia Balta’s mother fled Turkey after a vicious war with Greece a century ago, but it has not stopped the elderly Greek from donating clothes for the thousands left homeless by the deadly earthquake there.

“People are cold, so we do what we can” to help, Balta — whose mother survived the Greek-Turkish war of 1922 — told AFP as she left bags of woolens and overcoats at the town hall of a northern Athens suburb.

Thousands of Greeks have responded to calls for aid to quake-hit Turkey, reviving memories of how a spontaneous outpouring of help after a similar disaster in 1999 brought the squabbling neighbors together when they seemed to be on the brink of war.

At the Athens offices of the Red Cross, sleeping bags, blankets, milk cans and boxes of medicine are piling up, the organization’s spokesman Konstantinos Gavriilidis said.

A convoy carrying 40 tonnes of aid left earlier Friday, he told AFP.

“A nationwide appeal was launched two days ago… and the response was immediate and abundant,” Gavriilidis said.

The Greek government has separately sent 80 tonnes of medical and first aid equipment.

The 7.8-magnitude tremor has claimed the lives of some 22,000 people in Turkey and Syria.

NATO allies Greece and Turkey have a history of rivalry that goes back centuries.

Balta told AFP that her mother never returned to her home city of İzmir after 1922, and she cannot bring herself to do so either.

“It’s too sad. I don’t want to go back,” she said, vowing to return on Monday with more clothes.

The regional rivalry has been exacerbated by territorial and energy disputes and by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent bombastic threats of invasion, which Athens attributes to his difficult re-election campaign.

But the two countries that lie on seismic fault lines also have a tradition of helping each other in quake emergencies.

Greece was among the first European countries to send rescue workers and humanitarian aid on Monday, a few hours after the disaster.

“We must make all our forces available to Turkey,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said on Monday.

A day later, he tweeted in Turkish: “Greeks and Turks are fighting side by side, together to save lives.”

On Wednesday, a second aircraft carrying firefighters, engineers, and doctors left Greece.

Local authorities, trade unions, NGOs, and civil society initiatives have also called for donations.

Greek mobile phone companies Vodafone and Cosmote have meanwhile announced calls to Turkey will be free.

‘Solidarity is alive’

“Solidarity is alive in these difficult times,” Simos Roussos, the mayor of a northern suburb of Athens, said in a Facebook post as he announced local aid collection areas.

“The public reaction is to be expected,” Fotini Tsibiridou, a professor of social anthropology at the University of Macedonia in northern Greece, told AFP.

Greeks “want to give their support because they are moved by the drama that contrasts with the political rhetoric of division and rivalry,” she said.

Greek TV channels are running rescue operation footage live from the disaster zone, reflecting the nation’s own quake concerns.

A video showing Greek rescuers pulling a child from the rubble in the quake-stricken Turkish region of Hatay has been shared tens of thousands of times.

Greece lies on major fault lines and is regularly hit by earthquakes, but high casualties are less common. The worst killed 476 people on the Ionian islands of Zakynthos and Cephalonia in August 1953.

In 1999, three years after the two countries nearly went to war over an uninhabited islet in the Aegean Sea, two deadly earthquakes struck Turkey and Greece within a month of each other.

Quake diplomacy

A 7.6-magnitude earthquake in İzmit near İstanbul on 17 August, 1999 killed over 17,000 people. It was followed on September 7 by a 5.9-magnitude earthquake near Athens that left 143 dead.

A thawing of relations overseen by Greek and Turkish foreign ministers George Papandreou and İsmail Cem, accompanied by closer economic, tourism, and trade ties, was later dubbed “earthquake diplomacy.”

But analysts note that the present situation is very different from that of the 1990s.

“In 1999, Turkey had a more European orientation. Today Erdoğan plays the card of tension with Greece to galvanize his electorate ahead of presidential elections,” said Antonia Zervaki, of the University of Athens.

While both the Greek government and civil society are favorable to an improvement in relations, “we’ll have to wait and see” if a rapprochement can develop, she said.

Tsibiridou is sceptical on that front.

“Once the impact of this tragic event is over, it will be easy to return to the highly nationalistic and divisive policy” pursued by Ankara, she said.

Take a second to support Stockholm Center for Freedom on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!