One year after a devastating earthquake, Turkey tries to rebuild

From a mountainside rising above Antakya, in southern Turkey, there is a sweeping panorama of the ancient city at sunrise, revealing a place that is a shell of its former self. Gaping holes where hundreds of buildings previously stood now dominate the landscape. The remaining buildings, empty and cracked, jut out of the ground, awaiting demolition.

It’s been one year since a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck southern Turkey and northern Syria. It was followed later in the day by another one, with a magnitude of 7.5.

Over 52,000 people were killed. Hundreds remain missing, and 11 of the 17 provinces in Turkey’s south were declared disaster zones.

At least 4 million buildings were damaged or destroyed. Hatay province sustained the most severe damage.

People pick through what remains for metal scraps or valuables to sell, in a place where the economy, too, has been devastated. Almost all shops, as well as banks, bakeries and restaurants have been moved to containers, which dot the sides of main roads. Families also live in tents or containers, with no sense of when they might be able to return to their homes.

Still searching for the missing

In nearby Iskenderun, Sema Gulec said she searches for her son’s face in every person she passes on the street. An architect, Batuhan, who was 25, was in his apartment the night of the earthquake. “We have so many questions in our heads. What happened to him? For nearly one year we’ve been without closure. Days and nights are all the same,” she said.

Gulec is the secretary of the Association for Solidarity with Earthquake Victims and Lost Relatives (DEMAK), which was founded 10 months ago for families who continue to search for their loved ones. At least 145 people are registered with DEMAK as missing across 11 cities affected by the earthquakes. Many more are unaccounted for. The Turkish government does not publish official numbers of the missing.

A crane works at a demolition site in Iskenderun, Turkey on Jan. 25 nearly one year from a devastating earthquake that killed over 52,000 people. (Video: Nicole Tung for The Washington Post)

Waiting for better shelter

On a recent morning, freezing rain pelted the tarp of Sevcan Turk’s tent, located on a plot of land where at least another 15 families were staying. The mother of three teenagers, Turk had planted a small garden in front of her tent using discarded yogurt tubs. “Our psychological situation is just a mess now; with every small earthquake, we panic. I saw so many dead bodies in the days after the earthquake. There was so much looting; we also feared for our safety. So I started gardening to de-stress a little,” Turk said.

She is waiting for a container from the government. On the night of the earthquake, her house, which is at the base of a mountain, was damaged by falling rocks. Her mother-in-law narrowly survived.

Turk expressed her growing frustration with the lack of support for those still living in tents. “We didn’t get any government aid. Only volunteers helped us. We see so much fundraising in Antakya, enough to build another whole city — but we haven’t seen any of that help. No cash cards for supermarkets, only a small hygiene kit that came a month ago,” she said.

A more difficult life for Syrian refugees

Not far from Turk, another family huddled in their tent to stay warm and out of the rain. The Al Omar family arrived from Hama, Syria, seven years ago. “Life after the earthquakes has only gotten more challenging,” said Mustafa Al Omar, who shares the tent with his wife, Sama, and their five children. For Syrian refugees in Turkey who have been displaced by the earthquake, their needs are often secondary to Turkish citizens, but the Omar family was trying to remain positive. “There’s no better condition than this tent camp. We don’t receive aid, but hopefully we will receive a container soon,” Omar said.

At another tent camp where dozens of Syrian and a few Turkish families were staying, toxic wastewater ran through walkways. Toilets were few and far between. The landlord, who allowed the displaced to use the land after the earthquake for temporary shelter, recently demanded that all families vacate the plot.

At a cemetery for earthquake victims on the road into Antakya, hundreds of graves lined a hillside. Ahmed Barbour, 20, was visiting the grave of his father with his brother and a friend. Verses from the Quran played from his phone as he knelt by the grave, his face solemn. “I come here to visit my father every day,” said Barbour, who is originally from Syria. “What I miss most about him is the nights where my dad and I would do accounting together for our baby clothing business, and we would talk and count numbers together.” Barbour’s grief was palpable even nearly a year on. “Nothing tastes the same after the earthquake.”

In Samandag, a 20-minute drive from Antakya, construction workers repaired lightly damaged buildings while others put together prefabricated structures for homes or shops. Locals, who were staying in tent shelters under a bazaar, were not hopeful their city would get the support it needs to recover.

A mountain of rubble is growing nearby. Debris from cities and villages is brought here in dump trucks at all hours of the day. Activists and environmentalists have protested the continued dumping, concerned that the rising dust could be toxic.

Thousands of apartments, built by TOKI, the government-backed housing agency, are being constructed in Antakya and other parts of Hatay. Residents don’t expect the city to be rebuilt for another decade.

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