Hannah Lucinda Smith visits Turkish cities recently devastated by powerful earthquakes – a catastrophe made even worse by corrupt, shoddy construction.
A motorway flyover teetering on cracked columns loomed above us on the road to Kahramanmaras, a city at the epicentre of the massive earthquakes that ripped through Turkey and Syria in February. The quakes chewed roads and ripped up airport runways, and the only way through was a crumbling mountain pass. Vehicles full of volunteer rescue teams and flatbed trucks carrying diggers clogged the narrow road – a tide of people rushing into the disaster zone which, hours later, would be matched by those trying to escape. No one controlled the traffic as it morphed into a chaotic convoy that spilt into the oncoming lane. On either side, we looked out over crumbled villages and petrol stations that had imploded onto their forecourts.
The earthquakes hit Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s heartland: poor and conservative backwaters such as Kahramanmaras that had been developing at warp speed before this catastrophe. Shoddy multi-storey blocks, built during his 20-year tenure, housed people who had ascended from rural poverty. They repaid him: Erdogan won 74.8 per cent of the vote in Kahramanmaras in the 2018 elections. The president faces the ballot box again in May and his tame media channels are working hard, playing endless loops of miracle rescues and dropping a live broadcast when a volunteer interrupted the presenter to vent his fury at the absent state. Erdogan has promised to build new homes within a year for the 1.6 million people displaced. Those who take their news from television might be fooled. But nearly everyone has lost someone in this disaster. “There is nothing left in Turkey,” shouted Hurra Koca, as she waited for her aunt in Kahramanmaras. “Tayyip Erdogan is just playing a game.”
“AFAD, the state disaster agency, is stuffed with Erdogan loyalists, and its response was bungled and slow”
The earthquakes might have been an act of God but the extent of the disaster is largely man-made. Corruption is endemic in Turkish construction; the biggest builders pay dues to the president. They have built substandard high-rises on dried-up river beds and other areas where the ground is not solid, while the government changed the borders of earthquake zones where construction should be limited. Erdogan’s Turkey has developed a state-construction complex. In Kahramanmaras we saw how that system collapsed. The force of the tremors ripped apart concrete like paper. Apartment blocks had pancaked down on themselves. Some had crumbled into heaps. Others were still intact but had collapsed at ground level and were lurching forward – a tell-tale sign that their supporting columns had been removed by businesses occupying ground-floor units. We walked from one wreck to the next. There were baby clothes and blood smears, a charred Qur’an and family photo albums, teddy bears and body parts scattered amid the remains of people’s homes. As poorly equipped workers tried to find survivors, a single fire engine raced between blazes.
Crowds gathered outside each building. “I have been waiting here since the earth- quakes,” said a hunched, hollow-eyed man called Seref Kilinc. He looked towards the heap of concrete that had once been home to his daughter, Betul, her husband and their three children. “Yesterday nobody came. Only today they have started to search.” As time passed, buildings that had been half-standing were razed by rescue workers, then demolition teams. People sleeping in the streets were evacuated, often leaving dead relatives beneath the rubble. In the devastated city of Antakya, 10 days after the first quake, we found a plaintive notice scrawled on a wall: “There is a child in here,” next to an arrow pointing to the spot.
The anger soared with the death toll. afad, the state disaster agency, is stuffed with Erdogan loyalists, some from theological backgrounds, and its response was bungled and slow. Many thousands more might have been saved had it arrived in hours, not days. Instead, we found Bulent Nihat, 18, a civilian, searching for survivors in Antakya. “People thought we were afad when we arrived but we have no machinery,” he said. “We are digging with our hands.”
If you ever find yourself in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, head east down Fidel Castro Street, then turn right onto Robert Mugabe Avenue and you’ll see the country’s Independence Memorial Museum, rising 40 metres above the city. It was designed and built by Mansudae Overseas Projects, a Pyongyang-based construction company with a particular reputation for such projects.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea doesn’t have an abundance of soft-power riches to mine, largely because of its decidedly loose adherence to the “democratic” part of its name. But in one area, the country can credibly claim supremacy: the construction of vast, socialist-realist monuments. As well as Windhoek’s brass behemoth, it has built, among others, the 49-metre-high African Renaissance Monument in Dakar (pictured, top left) and the gargantuan 120-metre-tall mausoleum of Angola’s former president Agostinho Neto in Luanda. All are shrines not just to the people and events that they honour but also to North Korea’s monument-building largesse. Through Mansudae Overseas Projects, the hermit nation has helped to erect statues in 17 countries, including Cambodia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Germany and Zimbabwe.
The firm was founded in 1959, during the rule of North Korea’s first supreme leader, Kim il-Sung, who, alongside fomenting revolution abroad, saw grand public architecture as a key propaganda tool. “North Korea played an important role in supporting the national liberation movements and anticolonial struggles of Cold War-era Africa,” Benjamin Young, a North Korea analyst and professor of homeland security studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, tells monocle. After winning independence, these countries were drawn to North Korean socialist realism because of its avowedly modern style and anticolonial connotations.
In recent years the US and UN have cracked down on the activities of Mansudae Overseas Projects as they tighten sanctions on North Korea. However, the country’s current leader, Kim Jong-un, is keen to retain his premier soft-power asset. “Pyongyang has shifted its foreign artistic operations to a smaller, lesser-known studio called Paekho, which continues to be active in sub-Saharan Africa,” says Young.
In the interests of balance, it’s only fair to note that these giant statues usually receive a mixed reception from local people, used as they are to venerate regimes rather than nations. monocle sought comment from North Korean officials about its budding building business but the response, fittingly, was as silent as a statue.
When Colonel Aneel Alvares piloted b-1 bombers for the US Air Force, his crew sometimes used Garmin pathfinders from Walmart because the aircraft’s gps was unreliable. Accelerating the pace at which the Pentagon adopts technology to solve operational challenges is the raison d’être of the Defense Innovation Unit (diu), where Alvares is now director of defence engagement.
The programme sets up shop in technology hubs across the US and recruits private-sector talent to help meet national-security needs. In the past eight years, the unit has awarded $1.2bn (€1.1bn) to 360 projects. Last year the US Department of Defense deemed 17 prototypes worthy of production, totalling more than $1.3bn (€1.2bn) in contracts.
“We’re closing the physical and cultural gap between centres of innovation and the Department of Defense,” says Alvares, who leads the diu’s Boston office. The unit also has outposts in Austin, Chicago, Seattle, Silicon Valley and Washington. Engineers’ eyes glaze over when they’re handed 100-page requests for proposals for defence contracts. “When it’s all so inaccessible, the most innovative part of the US economy is being put off from doing business with us,” says Alvares. That’s why the diu’s solicitations are concise – typically five paragraphs – and awardees are pushed to move from prototype to live applications in two years. This fast pace helps start-ups to find revenue streams quickly enough to remain solvent and tailor capabilities, allowing the US military to stay ahead of the technology development cycle. Promising prototypes range from remote-sensing tools assisting the Ukrainian military to low-orbit satellites to provide real-time imagery to the ground.
As Alvares makes the rounds in Boston, he doesn’t wear his uniform; the unit is working to convince talent that defence is just another potentially lucrative field for entrepreneurs. This usually means slacks and a sweater: you won’t see a military man in a Mark Zuckerberg-style hoodie-and-shorts get-up.
Who vs who: Hungary vs Ukraine
What it’s about: Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán – who seems to regard this feature as a title to be defended – told a group of journalists that he believed Russia would prevail in Ukraine, describing the latter as “a no man’s land” and likening it to “Afghanistan”, presumably forgetting how Russia got on in actual Afghanistan in the 1980s. Ukraine’s foreign ministry summoned Hungary’s ambassador in Kyiv for what it menacingly billed as “a frank discussion”, doubtless preparing to suggest that Hungarians should require no instruction in the predatory inclinations of Russia: 1956 isn’t that long ago.
What it’s really about: It’s always hard to know whether Orbán’s worship of Vladimir Putin (pictured, with Orbán) is sincere or just a line that he thinks plays well with his core base; or perhaps something he believes will stand him in good stead should Russia triumph. This latest outburst fits the general pattern of his foreign policy: enjoying the security and prosperity endowed by membership of Nato and the EU, while cosying up to unsavoury authoritarians.
Likely resolution: Hungary’s ambassador to Ukraine will pass on Kyiv’s remonstrations to Orbán, who won’t care in the slightest – but it would be something if Orbán’s fellow Nato and EU leaders started saying that his position on Ukraine, besides being morally abject, is the luxury of a small and strategically inconsequential country.
Turning up in Munich, of all places, while a belligerent autocracy is helping itself to bits of Europe and pitching any variety of appeasement would be a bold move – and at 2023’s Munich Security Conference (msc), nobody did. The contrast between this year and last year was an inevitable recurring theme. In 2022, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, appeared in person, returning home days before Russia unleashed its military on his country. Twelve extraordinary months later, the msc was suffused with solid confidence in the Western alliance. It was quite something to hear a German defence minister declaring, as Boris Pistorius did, that a war against Russia must be won.
The msc is an astonishing circus seen from inside the big top. To stand in the lobby of the Hotel Bayerischer Hof as you wait to be escorted to your next interview is to be bumped into by Bill Gates going one way and Antony Blinken heading the other, while anxious security guards try to prevent their employer from being trampled by someone else’s detail. All of which is thrown into even greater chaos if Kamala Harris decides to move more than two metres in any direction. Despite the hurly-burly – or perhaps because of it (when three prime ministers are crammed into the same lift, they have to talk about something) – constructive discussion occurred. Dauntless bravado in the face of the Russian bear was to be expected. What was more surprising was the willingness of several foreign ministers to fret to The Foreign Desk that Nato had not done enough to persuade the Global South that Russia’s rampage was a threat to them as well, menacing the security of food, energy and trade.
Nations act in their own interests and those that have clambered from beneath imperial dominion are probably entitled to run up the tab somewhat when asked for help by their former suzerains. Now would be a propitious moment to both undermine and overbid Russia, which has been ardently cultivating friends in Africa in particular. The West can and should provide superior infrastructure, security, aid and investment. Given history and the wider interests in play, Western nations could try making their points about democracy, transparency and human rights by example rather than lecture. There is a win-win available here if the West is serious about demonstrating that it can be a better friend to the Global South than Russia or China will be.
Andrew Mueller hosts ‘The Foreign Desk’ on Monocle 24.
One of Ontario’s northernmost stretches of railway is expected to resume passenger services in 2026. Launched in 1976, the Northlander line runs for more than 740km between Toronto’s Union Station and rural, northern cities and towns such as North Bay, Timmins and Cochrane. Ontario, which is Canada’s most-populous province, has a landmass that is larger than that of France and Spain combined.
Its sparsely populated northern areas have long called for better transport links to major cities in the south. In 2012 the route’s government-owned operator, Ontario Northland, replaced passenger rail routes with buses, citing budget cuts. According to the 2021 census, however, the decline in Northern Ontario’s population has been reversed and the number of rail passengers is rising nationally too. State operator Via Rail Canada reported a 30 per cent rise in passenger numbers in 2021, the most recent year for which figures are available.
The revived service, which will run between four and seven times a week depending on seasonal demand, will operate with three new diesel passenger trains, which were manufactured by Siemens and bought for ca$139.5m (€97m) in December. The carriages will have large seats and plenty of legroom, and ample space for bicycles and wheelchairs; they will serve food and drink in galley-style dining cars.
The 16 stations on the route will also receive overhauls. As a result, Ontario’s provincial government projects that annual ridership could reach between 40,000 and 60,000 passengers a year by 2041. Rail expansion in Canada has been thwarted by political wrangling over the past decade, with plans for much-needed high-speed connections often kicked into the long grass. Northlander’s revival will create a reliable transport link between Ontario’s northern stretches and its more populous south, particularly during winter, when road closures and disruption to air travel is common. All aboard for a quick route to the High North.
Images: Shutterstock, Alamy, Getty Images, Ontario Government