Natural disasters remind us how frighteningly finite and precious our existence is. The terrifying destruction in Turkey and Syria was unleashed by forces beyond our control. The whole world is touched by the tragedy of thousands of people taken within a few moments.
“We were shaken like a cradle. There were nine of us at home. Two sons of mine are still in the rubble, I’m waiting for them,” said a mother with a broken arm at a site in Diyarbakir in south-eastern Turkey.
“Everyone is putting their heart and soul into efforts although the winter season, cold weather and the earthquake happening during the night makes things more difficult,” said Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
With 2,818 buildings collapsed, it is far too early to assess what the final toll could be, but the World Health Organisation says it will be significantly higher. In Syria – a country already racked by more than 11 years of civil war – hundreds more have died. The scenes of unfathomable grief and suffering have stirred compassionate reactions globally.
In a message from Moscow, Russian president Vladimir Putin asked Mr Erdogan to “convey words of sincere sympathy and support” to the families of the victims, and said Russia was “ready to provide required assistance”. On the Kremlin website, he wrote: “My profound condolences on numerous fatalities and massive destruction caused by a strong quake in your country.”
Putin, like the rest of us, can find it within himself to have empathy for people wiped out by a random shifting of tectonic plates. So might he also not feel compunction for visiting a completely man-made catastrophe on the citizens of Ukraine by waging all-out war against them?
To be gasping for breath trapped under the rubble of a building must be a nightmarish experience. But to think such conditions could be deliberately created by bombing cities is far more chilling. United Nations chief Antonio Guterres has warned nations that he fears the likelihood of further escalation in the Russia-Ukraine conflict means the world is heading towards a “wider war”.
He said: “The chances of further escalation and bloodshed keep growing. I fear the world is not sleepwalking into a wider war. It is doing so with its eyes wide open.”
World leaders have rightly pledged to send aid after Turkey issued an international appeal for help. Natural disasters inevitably capture headlines and national attention in the short term, but the building and recovery work will be long term.
Calamity can sometimes create windows of understanding. As nations and their leaders rightly rally to help the people of Turkey and Syria: improbable though it most likely is; might Moscow not also have pause for thought, and recognise that the threads that hold us altogether are fragile enough without deliberately shredding them?
As the Franciscan writer Brennan Manning wrote: “In every encounter we either give life or we drain it; there is no neutral exchange.”
In the aftermath of such devastating natural disaster we have a duty to do all we can to forestall further man-made ones.