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Turkey earthquake: Rock star's aid appeal provokes donations spat

'Troll army' attacks Haluk Levent as some push for donations to his Ahbap organisation over official state aid body
Haluk Levent playing at a concert in Van (Wikicommons)

In the aftermath of Monday's earthquakes, which so far have claimed the lives of more than 21,000 people, the initial grief felt over the wide scale destruction has, for some, turned to anger, as criticism has mounted over what many have seen as the government's slow response to the crisis.

With accusations flying, a war of words has erupted over a charitable organisation started by a famous Turkish rock star.

Ahbap - named after an informal word for "friend" in Turkish - was founded in 2017 by Haluk Levent, a Turkish musician who achieved fame in the 90s after reviving the Anatolian Rock genre.

'This should be an opportunity for the government to do some soul-searching and ask why so many trust more in a 90s rocker than state institutions'

- Kenan Sharpe, journalist

His organisation, which operates in 68 Turkish cities, focuses on a range of humanitarian causes in Turkey and was put into action following the earthquakes to help provide support to those affected. As well as taking donations, the organisation's website offered a list of locations people could go to for shelter on an "Earthquake Safe Spots Map", including sports centres, dormitories and stadiums and restaurants.

Many on Twitter, which has become an important tool in the Turkish rescue effort, began to push for donations to Ahbap over the official Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD), claiming the latter - as an arm of the state - couldn't be trusted.

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Kenan Sharpe, a freelance journalist who focuses on entertainment, music and culture in Turkey, said the reaction was indicative of how many in Turkey had felt let down by the state in the initial hours after the quakes.

"While many in the areas most affected by the earthquakes spent the first critical hours wondering why AFAD wasn't on the ground in many places, on social media they could see Haluk Levent livestreaming and sharing information and video from the front lines of the disaster," he told Middle East Eye.

The anger spiked after Turgay Guler, a journalist for the pro-government Aksam newspaper, gave an interview for Ulke TV in which he encouraged people to give money to AFAD rather than Ahbap.

"You cannot deliver 1 billion liras to Haluk Levent, he cannot manage," he told the broadcaster.

Other pro-government journalists also weighed in.

"I visited 2 provinces and 3 regions in the earthquake area," tweeted Taha Huseyin Karagoz, a journalist for Yeni Safak.

"I saw teams from the metropolitan municipality to the district municipality, almost all the youth branches of all parties, large and small NGOs, even bar associations, advisory chambers, etc. I didn't see Ahbap."

Soon Levent's account was swamped by a "troll army" criticising him and slamming those who chose to donate to Ahbap over AFAD.

Translation: If the public does not trust the institutions under AKP control for their aid and donations, it is necessary to sit down and think. You can't change that fact by trying to discredit Ahbap.

The attacks on Levent eventually became such that leading politicians had to weigh in. The leader of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) Kemal Kilicdaroglu tweeted that Levent was subject to a "smear campaign".

Levent eventually put out a statement himself to try and cool the situation, criticising those trying to drive a wedge between the different aid agencies.

"I'm in charge of the coordination and I can't even look at social media. If there are any of you who love me, I want a tweet," he wrote on Twitter.

"Resist those who want to interrupt our work! Both AFAD and our Ahbap! I want one sentence! Both AFAD and our Ahbap!"

Shortly after, internationally-famous Turkish pop star Tarkan also weighed in, tweeting: "I'm with you Haluk Levent" and backing his call to support both AFAD and Ahbap. A number of other Turkish pop stars soon followed suit.

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By Friday afternoon, "Afad is ours, as is Ahbap" had become the top trending hashtag on Twitter in Turkey.

Though the tension appears to have partly subsided, the controversy has highlighted the mistrust that exists among many in Turkey towards the country's official institutions.

Erhan Usta, deputy leader of the centre-right Iyi Party, criticised on Twitter this week the fact that current AFAD head Ismail Palakoglu graduated from university with a degree in theology and had previously mainly worked in the Directorate of Religious Affairs, better known as the Diyanet.

Erdogan has himself acknowledged there were "issues" with AFAD, a body he founded in 2009, in the days following the earthquake.

"Really, this should be an opportunity for the government to do some soul-searching and ask why so many trust more in a 90s rocker than state institutions," said Sharpe.

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