Turkish relief workers extend helping hand to Libyans

01/04/2011

As Turkey's leaders negotiate a course through the Libyan crisis, private charities are helping smooth their way. But do some groups harbour an ideological agenda?

By Alexander Christie-Miller for the Southeast European Times in Istanbul -- 01/04/01

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Turkish charities are bringing dozens of injured Libyans to Istanbul for treatment. [Alexander Christie-Miller/SETimes]

"So where can I learn Turkish?" says Juma, a 22-year-old Libyan man, to the smiling nurse who is treating his injury.

He is one of 12 Libyans -- a mixture of rebels and demonstrators -- who have been brought to Turkey to help relieve pressure on the overcrowded hospital in Benghazi.

A gunshot wound to the neck from the early days of the uprising has severed the nerves to his arm. "They say it could take a year to recover, so I'll need to know the language," he cheerfully explains.

Their wards at Istanbul's Avicenna Hospital are draped with Turkish flags, the tricolour of the Libyan rebels, and the banner of IHH, the Turkish Islamic charity that brought them here.

"I'm very proud of what IHH has done," said Mejdi, another patient. "I feel real solidarity with Turkey."

The charity says it plans to bring 70 more injured Libyans to Istanbul, and has launched a Libya disaster relief campaign.

"Our teams were the first international NGO to distribute aid in Benghazi," claimed Murat Bayraktar, IHH emergency aid coordinator. The charity got to the city on 22 February, five days after the start of the uprising and four days before the arrival of the Red Cross.

Its speedy involvement comes as Turkey's leaders are trying to shoulder their NATO responsibilities whilst not losing and hearts and minds of the Arab street.

This week Ankara announced it will be taking over the running of Benghazi airport to distribute humanitarian aid, and has already sent medical aid to the city. It is also positioning itself as a potential mediator, keeping channels open with both Gaddafi and the rebels.

"The Libya case is particularly difficult for Turkey, because an aggressive coalition with the West will be criticized by the Arab public," said Gokhan Bacik, a professor of International Relations at Istanbul's Fatih University. "On the other hand if Turkey keeps silent then it will get the reputation as a country that invests when times are good, but is nowhere to be seen in a crisis."

In this delicate balancing act, private charities are another manifestation of Turkey's growing cultural and economic soft power. According to Bacik, they are in the process of expanding and learning to operate in the difficult and diverse environments of the Middle East.

"Compared to some Western charitable organizations Turkey has advantages, particularly in terms of being a Muslim country," he said.

But the case of IHH is more problematic, he points out. In May last year it was catapulted from relative obscurity to the centre of international politics for its part in organizing the ill-fated Freedom Flotilla that tried to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza.

Its own boat, the Mavi Marmara, was boarded and fired on by Israeli soldiers, who killed nine people, including IHH activists.

During the political fallout of the raid, the charity faced accusations that it had provoked the attack. It has steadfastly denied this, but Bacik believes that its bloody entanglement with geopolitics has offered a cautionary example to other Turkish charities.

"IHH has become a symbol of charity twinned with ideology, and many other Turkish charities now do not want to follow that."

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In the authoritarian environments of the Middle East, organisations that bring ideological baggage with them are sometimes not welcome, he added.

The charity is now at pains to point out that it does not have an ideological agenda, flagging up its work in disaster zones in non-Muslim countries, including Japan and Haiti.

But none of this matters much at Avicenna Hospital, where the wounded Benghazi rebels are getting a first-hand taste of one of the qualities on which Turkey most prides itself: its hospitality.

"Even ordinary people from the streets are coming in to see us," said Mejdi. "They're just offering to help, asking if there's anything they can do -- it's amazing."

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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