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A year after Turkey's earthquake, hundreds of thousands of people remain in shelters

A woman stands next to a lamp inside a tent in Antakya, southern Turkey, on Jan. 12.
Khalil Hamra
/
AP
A woman stands next to a lamp inside a tent in Antakya, southern Turkey, on Jan. 12.

ANTAKYA, Turkey — Emine Tanrica survived the powerful earthquake last year that destroyed parts of Turkey and Syria and has been living in a temporary shelter in one of the many camps for displaced people that dot the landscape. She's wondering when she might see the new housing the Turkish government has promised for months.

"Life is not easy here," Tanrica, 47, says. She lived with her family "in big rooms before the earthquake, and afterwards we came to this narrow container, and I am sick," she adds. She explains she went to the hospital earlier in the day with difficulty breathing and a racing heartbeat.

This week Turkey commemorated the first anniversary of the earthquake that killed more than 53,000 people in the country and left over 3 million without housing. Thousands gathered for a vigil on Tuesday in grief over what the government calls the "disaster of the century." But even as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pledges to rebuild damaged cities and rehouse those displaced, hundreds of thousands of people remain in camps awaiting housing.

Antakya, built on the site of the ancient city of Antioch, was one of the cities hit hardest by the earthquake on Feb. 6, 2023. Much of the modern city crumbled.

A man and a dog walk next to a damaged building in Antakya, Hatay province, on Monday.
Ozan Kose / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
A man and a dog walk next to a damaged building in Antakya, Hatay province, on Monday.
A women crying over a relative's grave in a cemetery on Tuesday, marking the first anniversary of the Feb. 6, 2023, earthquake that devastated parts of Turkey and Syria.
Efekan Akyuz / Middle East Images/AFP via Getty
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Middle East Images/AFP via Getty
A women crying over a relative's grave in a cemetery on Tuesday, marking the first anniversary of the Feb. 6, 2023, earthquake that devastated parts of Turkey and Syria.

Even some of those who have been allowed to return to their homes say it's stressful being there.

Nineteen-year-old Nuriye says her family fled to the city of Nevsehir, in Turkey's central Anatolia region, after the earthquake. They weren't sure what they'd find when they returned to Antakya. She doesn't want to use her last name so she can speak candidly about the government's earthquake response.

Inspectors classified her family's home in Antakya as "lightly damaged," she says, but she doesn't feel safe there.

"If another earthquake happens, our two-story house will likely collapse," she says. "I don't think the columns are sturdy."

She adds, "We have a tent outside the house, when it shakes we go outside."

Antakya used to be a fun place to hang out with her friends, she says, but not anymore.

"We're in bad shape," she says. "To be frank, I want to leave here. I want to go."

Unmet promises to rebuild

Last spring, the government estimated the overall cost of the earthquake damage to Turkey at more than $103 billion. Independent economists say it's closer to $150 billion over a five-year period.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised in May a vigorous reconstruction program, vowing that some 319,000 safe new homes would be built in the first year.

So far, the reconstruction effort has fallen well short of that mark, and critics say there's cause for concern about both the pace and the quality of the reconstruction.

Mustafa Ozcelik, head of the Turkish Chamber of Engineers and Architects, notes that most of the rebuilding so far has been on the outskirts of cities like Antakya, while the badly damaged city center is still going through the demolition of destroyed buildings.

Residents walk by an earthquake-damaged building in Hatay on Monday.
Efekan Akyuz / Middle East Images/AFP via Getty
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Middle East Images/AFP via Getty
Residents walk by an earthquake-damaged building in Hatay on Monday.

Ozcelik wonders why the government didn't quickly build better temporary housing for the displaced, keeping them safe while a proper reconstruction effort ensued.

"They're building some 40,000 houses, but the need is for 290,000," he says.

"They should have built good temporary housing. People are living miserable lives in shipping containers, because there's no way they can quickly deliver so many permanent buildings."

Will officials be held accountable?

If you ask 24-year-old Antakya resident Mehmet Dogu, who's living in a shipping container, who's to blame for the poorly built structures that collapsed so quickly in the earthquakes, he doesn't hesitate.

"Well, people are blaming the municipality, of course, because they are the ones who let you build a seven-story, or a 10-story building," he says. "Where do you get the license? You get the license from the municipality."

Turkey has had a long history of deadly earthquakes, and this is not the first time the public has raised questions about official complicity in worsening the effects of natural disasters.

The 1999 Izmit earthquake sparked public condemnations of contractors, who were accused of using cheap materials and cutting corners on safety measures designed to help buildings resist being heavily damaged by quakes.

In the years that followed, state prosecutors filed more than 1,300 lawsuits related to allegedly illegal construction practices by contractors in the hardest-hit cities, but only 35 of those trials resulted in convictions.

People mourn by a coffin during the funeral of Cypriot students killed in an earthquake that hit Turkey, in the eastern city of Famagusta, in the breakaway Turkish Cypriot statelet of northern Cyprus, on Feb. 11, 2023.
Birol Bebek / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
People mourn by a coffin during the funeral of Cypriot students killed in an earthquake that hit Turkey, in the eastern city of Famagusta, in the breakaway Turkish Cypriot statelet of northern Cyprus, on Feb. 11, 2023.
Relatives of missing people hold a banner with portraits and reading "Find our lives lost in the earthquake" at a cemetery during a gathering marking the first anniversary of a powerful earthquake that hit the region, in Antakya, southern Turkish Hatay province, on Tuesday.
Ozan Kose / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Relatives of missing people hold a banner with portraits and reading "Find our lives lost in the earthquake" at a cemetery during a gathering marking the first anniversary of a powerful earthquake that hit the region, in Antakya, southern Turkish Hatay province, on Tuesday.

More than two decades later, prosecutors are trying to hold officials accountable after the 2023 disaster, with mixed results.

They sought 22 1/2 years in prison for the mayor of a town in the hard-hit Gaziantep province over his alleged role, before taking office, as a contractor who built an apartment building that collapsed in the earthquakes. Twenty-six people died in the toppled building.

Prosecutors said the evidence showed the former contractor, Okkes Kavak, bypassed building codes and safety measures that help structures resist damage from earthquakes, but he was acquitted. The release of Kavak — who is with Erdogan's governing Justice and Development Party — caused an outcry from victims' families and prosecutors and he was rearrested in January. He has yet to be retried and neither he or his attorneys have commented.

Critics point out that he was hardly alone, however. A survey of more than 1,700 buildings that collapsed across southern Turkey, causing fatalities, said more than half were unlicensed structures.

Emma Sinclair-Webb with Human Rights Watch says the long-standing practice of focusing on "rogue contractors" must be expanded to include the public officials who sign off on unsafe projects.

Earthquake survivor Rafet Donmez (center) sits on mattresses with his wife and son inside a tent in Antakya, southern Turkey, on Jan. 12.
Khalil Hamra / AP
/
AP
Earthquake survivor Rafet Donmez (center) sits on mattresses with his wife and son inside a tent in Antakya, southern Turkey, on Jan. 12.

She says mayors, city council members and planning departments across Turkey need to step up and seriously enforce building codes and safety standards.

"All these people have a responsibility to do their job properly," she says, "to not cut corners, to not let their political relationships or their 'crony relationships' with contractors influence their decision-making."

Turkish law requires public prosecutors get the government's permission before investigating a public official — something that's been previously used to insulate officials suspected of misconduct, Sinclair-Webb says.

"There's a big risk at the moment that that law will again be used to prevent public officials from being properly investigated for their crimes in connection with this earthquake," she says.

President Erdogan has said his party isn't at fault for the ongoing misery and slow reconstruction in the earthquake zone. He blames a "lack of vision" among local leaders — most of whom are from the secular opposition Republican People's Party.

Turkey's municipal elections are due at the end of March.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.
Gokce Saracoglu
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