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'The earthquake was a year ago, but every day we relive the same trauma'

A year later, and Turkey is still picking up the pieces from two devastating earthquakes.

20240131-Diego_Cupolo_DSC_5439-Enhanced-NRLRW From left to right: Muhammet, Cemalettin, Mesut, and Zeliha. 2024, European Union 2024, European Union


He doesn’t give away many emotions as he watches five journalists, a translator, and a photographer filing into the small tent on the outskirts of the Turkish town of Adyiman that his family have lived in for the past year.

The interior has only the essentials: two sofas, a television, a heater, some small items like cups and prayer beads dotted around the room.

It’s where six members of the family sleep. The rubble underneath is where their home stood before last year’s earthquakes, the strongest the country had experienced in decades.

The latest death toll from the disaster – a year ago this week – stands at 53,537, with 107,213 injured.

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

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

20240131-Diego_Cupolo_DSC_5236LRW 2024, European Union 2024, European Union

Muhammet sits on a couch next to his grandfather Cemalettin (60). His grandmother Zeliha (58) and father Mesut (38) kneel on the floor. The other children in the family were out at the time we visited, save for his older brother Muhammand.

When the issue of work and money is raised, Muhammand is tasked with distracting Muhammet, passing him a jacket and heading outside.

The family sits in silence, waiting until the two brothers are clear of the doorway before answering.

Mesut speaks to the translator in a quiet, clear tone with unwavering eye contact.

Before the earthquake, he was working as a manager in a shop when he was diagnosed with cancer and had to quit. The local hospitals are not equipped to carry out the necessary surgery and he can’t afford to access it privately.

Cemalettin – himself suffering from a number of conditions – now works on construction sites to bring in what little money he can for the family.

The supports they’ve received in the past year are limited -  tents, clothing and food in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. A prepaid card provided by the Turkish Red Crescent helps them buy basic necessities, but the payments will stop in a few months.

Their home, built three decades ago, collapsed during earthquakes on 6 February 2023, leaving some of them trapped inside.

20240131-Diego_Cupolo_DSC_5597LRW The family stand on the rubble that was their home. 2024, European Union 2024, European Union

Zeliha becomes upset when they speak about the days immediately following the tremors. Mesut tells of the horrific injuries they witnessed at the overrun hospital. They always knew a large earthquake would hit the area, but not the ‘apocalypse’ they bore witness to.

They show us their limited wash facilities, and allow us into their kitchen. It’s kitted out with cooking equipment and food, but it is a precarious lean-to constructed from seemingly salvaged materials.

Around them are many, many more tents. Scattered on the ground among the rubbish are children’s toys and items used to hold tarpaulin securely in place to keep the elements out of the basic tents.

They are among the thousands of Turkish families who are still without a home after the earthquakes devastated the region.

20240131-Diego_Cupolo_DSC_5514LRW The surrounding area where the family's tent is located. 2024, European Union 2024, European Union

They were offered a place in a container city – sometimes vast complexes consisting of rectangular prefab housing units of varying sizes and quality, built by Turkish authorities – but turned it down as they have no car and so couldn’t travel for work, which they are already struggling to find.

There was also an offer of a home in a new housing development, but they would be required to pay extra. Then there’s the compensation from the government for their lost home, which would only buy them a small plot of land.

Most importantly, they feel that the site they live on now is their home, although it may not resemble a traditional home now. They have launched a court case in order to be able to prove ownership, something difficult in a city where many documents not yet digitised were lost in the earthquake.

One support that the family gets is in the area of mental health through an organisation called the Gökkuşağı Association. This group receives EU funding through GIZ, a German NGO.

The need is clear when they speak about Muhammet. The region experienced a strong aftershock in recent weeks. Muhammet panicked, they said, fearing a repeat of last February.

In similar camps, Irish charity Concern was also active – especially in the immediate aftermath – to help set up toilets and basic shower facilities.

It was clear throughout our conversation that the family are determined to get back on their feet.

However, at the same time, hope is fading.

“We are lucky to have survived. We are proud to be Turkish and proud to live in Turkey. But we don’t think we will have a future,” Mesut says.

20240131-Diego_Cupolo_DSC_5480LRW 2024, European Union 2024, European Union

“The earthquake was a year ago, but every day we relive the same trauma of losing our friends, our family, our possessions. Hopefully our government does their best for us but [...] there are so many people in need of help.

I hope nobody in [Ireland] faces a disaster like this. We want them to not forget – to not forget our situation, to not forget us.

The following day, our group travel to a container camp in Gaziantep province, close to Nurdagi where much of the town centre lies in ruins.

There we meet a group of teenagers who were taking part in an educational programme organised by the Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants (ASAM) with support from UNICEF.

This again was another project in receipt of EU funding through European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO).

ECHO was already active in the region prior to the earthquakes, and supports dozens of local initiatives through partner organisations. The budget since 2012 runs into the billions, targeting everything from basic facilities and support infrastructure to child protection.

A further €26 million in humanitarian aid has been earmarked for both refugees in Turkey and the host community.

As we watch the teenagers take a class, there is no discussion of the events of the past year, but the room grows quiet at the first mention of the earthquake.

20240201-Diego_Cupolo_DSC_5888LRW The group of teenagers who gathered to speak to reporters. 2024, European Union 2024, European Union

“Even though it’s been a year, I still remember it as if it was yesterday. Normally I wouldn’t have any difficulty speaking, but it’s hard now,” one comments.

I ask them what messages they had for people in Ireland about what happened. For a while, the tables turn, and they seek to learn as much as they can about Ireland and knowledge of people here of the earthquake before answering further – how did Ireland react at the time? Do people still talk about what happened?

Once satisfied, they open up.

“It’s a year since the earthquake, but we still live it every day,” Yasemin (17) says.

I don’t want to see 6 February again. It feels like we’re going through it all again.

Bedirhan (17) tells the room that everyone is trying to do something for Turkey:

“Everybody is trying to help the country recover. Everybody is trying to do their best.

“It is impossible for us to forget what we have been through, but we should continue, and we should accept that, yes, the pain we had will always be there, but we have to continue with our lives.

That’s mainly what we want to be heard, that this is what we are trying to do. We don’t have the chance to change the past. What we should be focusing on is the future.

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).