Sifting through the rubble and political fallout of Turkey’s quake

Places like Iskenderun, Antakya, Reyhanli are reeling in an aftermath of blame and anger as years of underinvestment and corner-cutting come home to bite

Places like Iskenderun, Antakya, Reyhanli are reeling in an aftermath of blame and anger as years of underinvestment and corner-cutting come home to bite.
Eduardo Ramon
Places like Iskenderun, Antakya, Reyhanli are reeling in an aftermath of blame and anger as years of underinvestment and corner-cutting come home to bite.

Sifting through the rubble and political fallout of Turkey’s quake

Shouts of ‘Allahu Akbar’ and warm applause broke the wall of silence in a neighbourhood of Iskenderun after a survivor emerged from underneath a destroyed building as if a baby was born after a difficult labour.

Exhaustion and astonishment were evident on the faces of the Spanish volunteers who participated in this rescue operation. They, in turn, came out from under the rubble looking for their team members to switch shifts, and threw themselves into each other’s arms while others sat away smoking.

That was a luxury local rescue teams did not have, their members continuing to work on-site through the hours until their boss shouted “Sessiz!” – “Listen!” His assistant blew a whistle and raised his hands in an ‘X’ shape. This was met with a similar movement by another rescuer from inside the rubble.

For a few minutes, the silence was broken only by the sound of breathing. Machinery stopped. Car engines and phones turned off. Speech and movement were prevented. We froze. Nothing but eyes moved.

Hoping for miracles

Thick dust covered our faces, as fumes and soot filled the air following the Iskenderun port fire. We waited silently for another miracle, waiting for minutes that felt like hours, but hope was dashed by a paramedic’s sudden order to resume efforts, six days after the devastating earthquake.

Hopes of finding survivors were fading, but not lost. The concept of time in Turkey’s south has been anything but normal in recent days.

Rescuers blew a whistle. Silence took over, except for the sound of breathing. Machinery stopped. Engines and phones were turned off. Nothing but our eyes moved.

The concept of time in Turkey's south has been anything but normal in recent days.

Tens of thousands died in just a few minutes, before a long slow search for survivors alive under the rubble, their hearts still beating a week or so later, stretched seconds into minutes, minutes into hours, hours into days.

Heart-warming wonders grew rare. Levels of hurt that could not be explained soon became understood through myth, mysticism, and metaphysics, all circulated as scientific fact.

The story of a young woman who emerged unscathed because healthy people fed and protected her under the rubble, or the one about three angels who protected a baby boy before handing him over to rescuers - all peddled as religious 'testimony'.

Lessons from history

The recent earthquake is considered the largest and most destructive in Turkey's modern history, with a death toll of around 45,000 by the first week of March, while another 6,000 are thought to have died in Syria.

Diana Estefaniìa Rubio

By contrast, the Erzincan earthquake in Turkey in 1939 killed about 32,000.

Inexplicable hurt was soon explained with myth, mysticism, and metaphysics, all posing as scientific fact. There was even a story about angels protecting a baby. All of this was peddled as religious testimony.

The damage to Erzincan, located in North Anatolia, was so extensive that reconstruction was impossible. The old city had to be abandoned, with a new one built further north.

That could be the fate of much of Hatay, where the eldest still remember the trauma of the 1939 quake that destroyed so much of historic value.

This was also the year that Iskenderun Province – with Antakya as its centre – was forcibly annexed to the Republic of Turkey, which did nothing to heal the socio-political rift between the central state and the mosaic of local religious and ethnic communities.

Strategically and economically important, Iskenderun and its people nevertheless feel neglected and unwanted by Ankara.

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A family waits to enter the field hospital of the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation, February 23, 2023, in Iskenderun, Turkey (Spain).

Volunteering in a disaster

"I am the only one who speaks Arabic, which helped me translate things between the rescuers and the people on the ground, especially the elderly," says Kemal Akoğlu, Assistant Professor at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul.

Born in Antakya, educated in California, he is now in his 30s and headed there with 50 volunteers immediately after the earthquake to help. "I am one of the few people of my generation who speak Turkish without a clear Arabic accent," he says.

"I trained myself to do so since childhood and clearly remember my parents' efforts to prevent us completely from speaking Arabic, even though they did not master Turkish very well."

Strategically and economically important, Iskenderun and its people nevertheless feel neglected and unwanted by Ankara.

Akoglu, the only one in his family and primary school to attend college, says speaking Turkish was "the only door to education and social advancement". He recalls how he would run away to his grandmother Maryam's house, where she would sing and speak to him in Arabic.

Memories can be among the first to go, and likewise all that remains after a natural disaster is the recollection of what was. "What is left of my city and its people?" Akoglu asks. "Even the ambulance came three days late. No-one cares about us."

He does not trust the state's evacuation and reconstruction measures, fearing the redistribution of the population across the country. His concerns are not without merit. The Turkish state has a history of not reconstructing cities in their historical locations, as happened in Erzincan.

Seeking temporary refuge

After Antakya was declared a disaster zone, evacuation efforts by the authorities sought to transport survivors by bus to cities hundreds of miles away.

Cities and towns that are geographically and socially closer were not considered because officials said there was limited capacity in their hospitals, schools, and university dorms to accommodate those whose homes were destroyed.

To some, the large distance between temporary refuge and historic home was to help sever psychological links with the place they grew up, large swathes of which were now unsafe or uninhabitable and in need of bulldozing.

The Turkish state has a history of not reconstructing cities in their historical locations, as happened in Erzincan.

But to simply up sticks and move is difficult for many reasons. How, for instance, can a business owner check on his business, or a homeowner oversee the reconstruction of their house?

As such, many stayed, camping in relief tents with relatives or in cars not lost to the rubble or fire.

View of a building destroyed during the earthquakes in Antakya, southeastern Turkey, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023.

Whether to stay or go

Public spaces were opened on the city's outskirts and around the municipal stadium. People parked their cars and turned them into temporary homes, turning the heating on at night when the temperature dropped below zero.

Alongside, and largely abandoned by the Turkish state in the aftermath of the quake, were Syrian refugees in border areas and cities such as Antakya, Iskenderun, Reyhanli, and Karkhaneh.

Refugees whose houses had been damaged or destroyed had to sleep in public gardens or on the sidewalks of roads.

So too did many refugees whose rental property was not damaged, but whose landlords nevertheless turfed them out, to house the owner's temporarily displaced Turkish relatives.

Those with any money were extorted – the few unharmed houses tripled their rental demands overnight.

Syrian refugees places like Antakya, Iskenderun, Reyhanli, and Karkhaneh have been left to sleep in public parks or by the side of the road

Refugees whose houses had been damaged or destroyed had to sleep in public gardens or on the sidewalks of roads.

Rescue workers and medics pull out a person from a collapsed building in Antakya, Turkey, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023.

Muhammad Hammoud (Abu Jassim) and his family slept under the stars for three nights after the earthquake – and in the snowstorm. He lived in Ikinci, Antakya, where nothing was left except for some lemon and mandarin orange trees.

"I carried my children, we rushed in our pyjamas to the street without realising what was happening. The whole building came down before our eyes, we could not even bring identity documents, clothes, anything," says Abu Jassim.

"First aid, children's clothes, blankets, and hot meals all arrived, but no-one talked about shelters. On the third day, in the evening, the police came to transfer people to university dorms in Mersin in half an hour, which triggered a stampede – everyone wanted a place on one of the five buses they'd brought for transportation.

"Both Syrians and Turks lived in that neighbourhood," says Abu Jassim, explaining how his family barely spent a night in a student's room "before they started knocking on the doors of Syrians' rooms, asking them to go down to the entrance of the building to be taken to one of the centres equipped for religious affairs".

Looking for blame

Around the same time, racist statements against Syrian refugees were being made by Umit Ozdag, the controversial head of the Victory Party. Some felt his comments led to refugees being led from halls in Mersin, others felt it was for their protection.

"The building was not equipped and the people there were not expecting us, but the police forced them to let us in," says Abu Jassim.

"We spent a frosty night in a large empty building with no heating. Men and women were separated, so families were scattered through the halls. At dawn, I asked to leave."

They travelled 650km by bus over a 12-hour journey to reach a friend's house.

I carried my children and rushed out into the street in our pyjamas without realising what was happening. The whole building came down before our eyes. We couldn't bring documents, clothes, anything.

Abu Jasim, Syrian refugee

Seda Altugh, a history professor at Bogazici University, whose family are from Hatay, said the Turkish army's rapid involvement in evacuations, rescue, and aid delivery came from its experience dealing with similar situations, such as with the earthquake in Van, in the east of Turkey, in 2011.

She said public criticism of the government's response follows every quake, adding that when the military deploys quickly, army equipment helps save lives, so she  questioned why the army – as the institution best able to respond – did not deploy until Day 4, after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had visited the affected areas, especially since there is a significant military naval base at Iskenderun.

An excavator works among the debris of collapsed buildings during the earthquake in Antakya, southeastern Turkey, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023.

Army's limited remit

Altugh felt the army's delay may have been due to fears of friction between it and a population angry at the government, but Hussein, a Turkish language teacher in Reyhanli, said the government may still be afraid of widespread solidarity with the army, especially after Erdogan's attempts to weaken and neutralise it following the unsuccessful coup attempt in 2016.

In the event, soldiers' presence on the ground seemed limited to the prevention of looting and robbery, after thefts wiped out the old gold market, malls, supermarkets, and cash machines.

For Akoglu and many like him in Antakya, the 1997 earthquake woke the Turkish people up to geological realities, namely their location on a tectonic fault-line.

Then as now, people interpret major quakes as divine punishment for detaching from their religion. The 1990s also saw the rise of left-wing and nationalist currents that entrenched societal divisions through political templates.

They only mobilised after four days, and when they did, soldiers were limited to preventing looting and robbery after thefts from gold markets, malls, supermarkets, and cash machines.

Around that time, Akoglu's father decided – like many others - to send his son to learn his religion according to Alevi sect principles. It is customary for a son, at the age of puberty, to live with a guide or mentor, until he completes the learning.

During that period, he is completely cut off from his family and community - the first "trauma" that Alevi males are subjected to. It was here that he first fully realised that he was not Turkish, like his teacher or middle-class peers, with whom he made great efforts to integrate. He was neither a stranger to them nor one of them.

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A man guards th ruins of the destroyed buildings in Antakya after the massive earthquake in southern Turkey.

Building short-cuts exposed

When the latest earthquake and its ensuing destruction revealed the extent of neglect, corruption, and rampant clientelism, Akoglu and others again felt that their city was unlike others such as Gaziantep, which voted for the ruling party, and which won more attention at the time of crisis. Many such cities have solid infrastructure and good local governance, meaning that they suffered less damage.

Many people, particularly in Hatay, believe that the extent of the damage and the number of deaths could have been avoided with some administrative oversight. After the Izmit earthquake in 1999, Turkey passed stricter building codes, but their enforcement and monitoring is piecemeal at best.

This is an issue that goes well beyond builders' competence and the use of inferior materials. It concerns the entire system of inspection and those issuing building and construction permits.

Business lobbyists want an amnesty for buildings violations, because corners were cut in pursuit of speedier construction and faster profits.

After the earthquake in 1999, Turkey brought in stricter building codes, but enforcement is piecemeal and lobbyists have sought amnesties after corners were cut.

In the last two decades, 75,000 violating buildings throughout the earthquake zone in southern Turkey were granted amnesties, according to statements from the head of the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and City Planners in Istanbul.

Very recently, such an amnesty law was awaiting a parliamentary rubber-stamp.

The collapse of a luxury residential complex such as Renaissance Residence, containing 250 units, had a tremendous impact on people. It was marketed as a "piece of paradise" and a dream for many.

"I aspired to buy a house in that complex for me and my family during holidays and perhaps after retirement," Akoglu says.

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A view of a collapsed building at the historical Antakya district in Hatay, Turkiye on February 22, 2023.

On the other hand, amid all that ruin, the governmental housing project known as Al-Toki stood as a place out of time and space, hampered only by the dust of its neighbours. The air-conditioning compressors had not missed a beat and the curtains reflected by the window glass were stacked as if they were pictures on the pages of home decoration magazines. Its survival looked miraculous.

The earthquake did not pass through here.

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