Can the Deadly Earthquake Reduce Tensions Between Greece and Turkey?



Izmit after the earthquake. Credit: Wikipedia

The deadly earthquake that hit under the sea between the Greek island of Samos and Turkey’s coastal city of Izmir (Smyrna) on Friday had the leaders of the two countries put aside their differences and offer condolences to one another as good neighbors should.

Since the number of casualties and damages were much higher in Smyrna, Greece offered to assist the Turkish authorities to locate and rescue people who have been trapped under the rubble of collapsed buildings.

The tweet posted by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to thank Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis was unexpectedly pacifistic and friendly, following months of hostile rhetoric against Greece over territorial waters in the Aegean.

“That two neighbors show solidarity in difficult times is more valuable than many things in life,” Erdogan wrote.

This is not the first time the two Eastern Mediterranean neighbors put their differences aside and allow humaneness to prevail. Unfortunately, this only happens after major human tragedies. Since the two countries are situated on seismogenic ground, they come together as neighbors only in times of natural disasters. One would say that the periods after major natural disasters were times of peace.

The last time Greece and Turkey put hostility aside and joined efforts to save people’s lives and offer humanitarian aid were the respective earthquakes in the summer of 1999.

The 1999 Izmit Earthquake

On August 17, 1999, a major earthquake hit Turkey in Adapazari, with the most severely affected area being the industrial city of Izmit. Istanbul was it as well. The earthquake measured 7.6 on the Richter scale, the tremors lasted 45 seconds and caused the death of 17,000 thousand people, even though there are estimates that the number was much higher. The damages were estimated to be about 3 billion dollars.

The magnitude of the disaster was so large that authorities could not even plan how to rescue hundreds of people trapped under rubble, much less bring the affected cities back to operation.

Earthquake in Athens, 1999. Credit: Public domain

While Greece was at the brink of war with Turkey three years earlier during the crisis at the Imia islets, it was the first foreign country to pledge aid and support to Turkey. On August 17 – the same day – the Greek Ministry of Public Order sent a rescue team of 24 people and two trained rescue dogs.

Greece’s Secretariat of Civil Protections had previously sent a fully equipped medical team of 11 people, four of whom were doctors as well as thousands of tents, mobile hospital units, ambulances, medicine, water, clothes, foods, and blankets with three C-130 planes from the Ministry of Defense for transporting the goods. The Greek Ministry of Health set up three units for blood donations.

All major municipalities across Greece also sent tons of humanitarian aid and a total of 80 million drachmas (267,000 dollars) in currency to aid the people affected by the earthquake. In addition, the municipality of Athens created a settlement for 1,000 persons with a nursery.

The Turkish people and the press praised Greece’s immediate response and thanked the government and the people of Greece for their humaneness.

Less than three weeks later it was Turkey’s turn to reciprocate. On September 7, 1999, it was Athens’ turn to feel the rage of a magnitude 5.9 earthquake. This was the most devastating natural disaster to hit the country in 18 years, following three major earthquakes that hit the Gulf of Corinth in 1981.

The tremor had a very shallow hypocenter and an epicenter close to Athens western suburbs, only 18 km (11 mi) away from downtown. A total of 143 people lost their lives in the disaster while more than 12,000 were injured. The damage to buildings and infrastructure in some of the capital’s suburbs was severe.

Turkey immediately reciprocated the aid. The Undersecretariat of the Prime Ministry, Turkish Armed Forces, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs pledged aid and were the first to arrive in Athens.

Within 13 hours after the earthquake, a military plane arrived with 20 rescuers and first aid supplies, while more aid arrived shortly after. The Greek embassy phone line was jammed by Turks calling asking where they could donate blood for their Greek neighbors.

Today, 21 years later, relationships between the two countries are marred by aggressive rhetoric from Turkey’s part and continuous violations of Greek territorial waters and airspace by Turkish armed forces.

One can only hope that the natural disaster the two countries suffered on Friday would bring them together once again. After all, there are many things that unite the two peoples and far less that separate them. Erdogan’s tweet to Mitsotakis offers that much-needed glimmer of hope for peace and friendship between the two neighbors.