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One year on from Turkey's devastating earthquakes, thousands still live in containers and tents

The Journal visited some of the worst-hit regions in recent days.


20240130-Diego_Cupolo_DSC_4800LRW A container camp in Hatay province. 2024, European Union 2024, European Union

WINTER TEMPERATURES ARE bringing back painful memories in Turkey.

It’s a reminder of last year’s scramble to find somewhere safe and secure to stay; desperate efforts to rescue survivors trapped under the rubble of collapsed buildings; the hospitals forced to turn away patients; the mourning for those who died.

Today marks one year since two powerful earthquakes hit Turkey. The first, striking shortly after 4am local time, measured 7.8 on the Richter scale. A second measuring 7.7 followed in the afternoon.

The 6 February quakes were the largest to hit the country since 1939. The fault line continues to rumble today, with thousands of aftershocks and even some strong tremors in recent weeks.

The latest death toll stands at 53,537, with 107,213 injured.

Almost 6,000 people were also killed in northern parts of Syria, which shares a border with Turkey.

As many as three million people were displaced in Turkey, and close to 700,000 people remain homeless.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan posted a social media message this morning at the time of the first quake, saying the tragedy “continues to burn our hearts as fresh as the first day”.

Erdogan survived initial criticism about rescuers being slow to respond to the gravest emergency to win re-election fewer than four months after the disaster.

Lingering resentment at both Erdogan’s conservative government and opposition politicians who oversee more liberal cities such as Antakya runs deep.

Health Minister Fahrettin Koca was booed loudly by the Antakya crowd as he prepared to speak at one pre-dawn event.

Pic 1 Empty space were buildings once stood in Antakya. Nicky Ryan / The Journal Nicky Ryan / The Journal / The Journal

The Journal visited some of the worst-hit regions in recent days.

Speak to locals, and you will often find a steely determination to get the country back on its feet, but a mammoth task faces the region. The damage to life, property, society, and business is still evident across 11 provinces, an area five times the size of Ireland.

In Antakya, parts of the city centre have been reduced to vast swathes of empty ground, where buildings which either collapsed in the quake or had to be demolished afterwards once stood.

You see homes which have been reduced to rubble, sagging apartment blocks, and buildings filled with cracks or broken walls that expose empty rooms to the elements.

Some have been rendered unsafe to live in and are awaiting destruction, which masks the true scale of the damage; at first glance, it might not be obvious how many apartment blocks are empty until night falls and the interior remains dark.

It was a similar sight 120km north in Nurdaği, and again, a further 150km north-east, in Adiyaman.

Even before this disaster, Turkey bore the brunt of another crisis, hosting the largest number of Syrian refugees in the world.

Now, Turks who have lost their homes share camps with those who have fled the civil war.

Thousands of those who were displaced live in so-called ‘container cities’. The dwellings within these range from prefab buildings to something more akin to a literal shipping container, and could lack proper insulation or waterproofing. Many families have been able to regain some sense of normality living in these, going back to work or school.

But both urban and rural areas are dotted with tents, sometimes clustered together in what are known as informal camps.

Some are provided by the Turkish government, with the country’s flag and the acronym for the Disaster and Emergency Management Authority – AFAD – in big, bold letters on the side. You will also frequently see blue tents with Chinese symbols, donated by China’s government.

20240130-Diego_Cupolo_DSC_4632LRW Tent accommodation in Hatay. 2024 European Union 2024 European Union

While the two groups are not strictly segregated, you are more likely to find Turks in container cities, and Syrians in tents.

Many Turks have chosen to stay in tents for various reasons. Relocating to a container city could make accessing work difficult or too expensive. Additionally, they may need to protect belongings or livestock still at their homes.

Others face prolonged legal battles to prove land ownership, sometimes hindered by files lost in the earthquake.

Syrians had integrated well into local communities, but just like their Turkish neighbours, their homes or rented accommodation were destroyed, and they now face an uphill struggle to secure a new place to live.

The country’s government is working to restore normality – setting up container camps, starting the process of rebuilding, attempting to boost the economy and restore education – but the assistance provided sometimes falls short.

20240130-Diego_Cupolo_DSC_3879LRW Construction underway in Hatay. 2024, European Commission 2024, European Commission

There are cash and social supports, but it is supplemented by a network of NGOs and aid organisations, especially for the needs of refugees.

People are being offered new homes, but sometimes a price-tag is attached, or given money to build a new one, but not enough.

You do not need to look hard to find new buildings popping up, but many people will say that progress is slow – privately, at least, given the fear caused by the current government penchant for censorship and suppressing criticism.

Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan has pushed back hard on those who said the government was unprepared and slow to respond. He has promised that 20,000 housing units would be delivered monthly and 200,000 by the end of the year

New legislation passed in recent months, branded the “censorship” law by critics of the president makes the dissemination of “misleading” information punishable by up to three years in prison.

It sparked protests from journalists and opposition politicians in a country that ranks 165th out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index.

Erdogan cemented his control over state institutions after surviving a failed coup attempt in 2016, and is accused of stacking the courts with allies who closely follow the government’s line.

He enjoys support across most of the earthquake region, but the May 2023 general election was one of the toughest of his two-decade rule – and he now faces into local elections at the end of March.

The Journal’s Nicky Ryan will have more reporting from Gaziantep, Hatay, and Adiyaman over the coming days.

The visit was facilitated by the European Commission’s Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (DG ECHO).

Contains additional reporting by AFP