Turkey earthquake: How are people reacting to state response?

As people wait to see what they’ll be able to reclaim of their lives, their reactions range from anger to understanding.

A man prays near the rubble of destroyed homes, in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake in Kahramanmaras, Turkey
A man prays near the rubble of destroyed homes,in the aftermath of the earthquake in Kahramanmaras [Nir Elias/Reuters]

Osmaniye and Kahmaranmaras, Turkey – When Halil Ibrahim Çalışkan looks at his ruined supermarket on the ground floor of an earthquake-shattered building, he does not blame his bad luck.

“We knew that we lived in an earthquake zone. It’s not fate. People are to blame for making weak buildings,” the 50-year-old shop owner told Al Jazeera in the southern Turkish city of Osmaniye.

Çalışkan, like many earthquake victims, blamed construction companies and what he said was the corruption and incompetence of the authorities in allowing them to cut corners.

“The system is wrong from head to toe,” he said. “You cannot blame fate for everything – people have to do their jobs, they have to follow the laws.”

His shop is in a building named after Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and close ally of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Bahceli was born in Osmaniye province and his mansion, about 100 metres away on the same street, does not have a scratch on it, while Çalışkan was not allowed to enter his building because it was unsafe and will be demolished.

He could only salvage some goods from the outside refrigerator to return to the suppliers and reduce his debt. He estimates he has lost about 1 million Turkish lire ($53,000) from the disaster, has no insurance and no prospects for making a living, and says he has had no support from the state.

“Hard days lie ahead,” he said.

Questions over preparedness, culpability and the response to the disaster are growing as the country struggles to recover about a week after devastating magnitude 7.8 and 7.6 earthquakes that have now killed more than 35,000 people in Turkey and more than 5,800 in Syria.

Erdogan has admitted to “shortcomings” in the state’s response to the earthquakes but insisted the size of the affected areas and harsh winter conditions meant it was “not possible to be prepared for such a disaster”. Turkish authorities say about 13.5 million people have been affected in an area roughly the size of Britain.

But Erdogan’s critics accuse his government of enabling endemic corruption in the construction sector, weak enforcement of building regulations, continuing a decades-long practice of waiving safety certificates for unsafe buildings for a fee, and the misuse of an estimated $3bn raised in an earthquake tax imposed two decades ago that was supposed to make buildings earthquake-resistant and the country more prepared.

The Turkish minister of justice, Bekir Bozdag, has stated that an investigation would be launched into the collapsed buildings to identify and hold accountable everyone who had played a part. The authorities have ordered the arrest of more than 100 people suspected of being responsible for collapsed buildings.

People sit as others search amid the rubble in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake
People sit as others search amid the rubble in the aftermath of the earthquake in Kahramanmaras [Nir Elias/Reuters]

The opinions of survivors are split.

Doğan Işdar, a 63-year-old school caretaker, and his wife Figen, 53, lived on the seventh floor in Çalışkan’s building. They have been given food, clothing, and a place to sleep in a dormitory by the authorities.

“I want to say thanks to our government, it’s so strong, it’s helping us so much – more than we need,” Doğan said.

Figen agreed that rogue builders were to blame for shoddy construction, pointing to the rubble of an 11-storey building across the street, in which about 80 people died, but said they had concealed their crimes from the authorities.

“This was fate – it’s enough that we have our lives,” Figen said.

At the same time, she could not imagine their future and was relying on her faith.

“We have no idea what we will do,” Figen said. “Allah will help us and show the right way.”

In many areas, survivors claimed that a slow state response had enabled looting, limited rescue efforts, and failed to provide basic aid, such as tents.

In places like Hatay, which was isolated in the early aftermath of the disaster with the major highway and airport severely damaged, the anger was huge.

In Kahramanmaraş, a conservative bastion of support for the ruling AK Party close to the epicentre of the earthquake, the survivors were more forgiving of the state.

Ahmet Çeneci, a 30-year-old teacher, was staying with his wife, three-year-old son, and father in an encampment of about 120 tents set up on a synthetic football pitch in the hard-hit town of Turkoglu, close to Kahramanmaraş. They were fortunate to have a warehouse owned by the state’s emergency and rescue agency, AFAD, nearby.

“This is the biggest disaster in Turkey in a century. [The response] was not enough, but the earthquake affected 10 cities and nobody expected such a huge, widespread disaster,” he said.

Çeneci said it was important for people to be united in the aftermath of the disaster.

“One of the best things about the earthquake … we remember that we are all humans, we’ve got to support and help each other,” he said.

“If we react angrily, what’s going to happen? There will be fights,” he added. “The pain is there, inside, but we have kids so we have to be organised, we have to be leaders in the community and set a good example.”

In many places, survivors are solving their problems by themselves with resilience and community spirit.

In Kahramanmaraş, Hasan Özbolat, 43, was both pragmatic and fatalistic over the disaster.

His home had been damaged and he and his neighbours had improvised makeshift tents by fixing canvas over covered benches in front of a library and had heaved wood-burning stoves into the tents. Forty people from 10 families slept between two tents and five cars.

He said while the authorities could have been better prepared, no one could be blamed for what was an “act of God”.

“It was a great lesson for us. We were disrespecting Mother Nature, and God gave us an answer,” he said.

“Before the earthquake, we were divided, and this reminds us that we’ve got to be united again as a community,” he said.

One thing that does unite many people is anger at shoddy construction, even if people differ in their view of the state’s failure to regulate the building sector.

While Çeneci’s block is damaged but remains standing, dozens of people were killed in his neighbourhood as high-rise buildings crumpled.

“People think small: ‘Let’s cut corners on that and earn lots of money.’ But how many lives are lost because of their love of money?” he said.

A collapsed building in Kahramanmaras, Turkey, on Tuesday, February 14, 2023 [Stefanie Dekker/Al Jazeera]
A collapsed building in Kahramanmaras [Stefanie Dekker/Al Jazeera]

The government’s response to the earthquake could have a significant bearing on presidential and parliamentary elections, currently set for May 14, in which Erdogan was already set to face a significant challenge to his two-decade rule. Pre-earthquake opinion surveys have suggested frustration over the country’s skyrocketing inflation and currency crisis, but Erdogan will be hoping that a series of recent stimulus measures and divisions within the opposition – including a failure to name so far a candidate – will lure back voters.

Erdogan came to power following the state’s botched response to the devastating 1999 Izmit earthquake, in which more than 17,000 people died. Some believe this earthquake could be a case of history rhyming.

In Osmaniye, Çalışkan said he used to vote for the AK Party but he will vote for the opposition in the elections following the earthquake.

“We need a change and to recover. This government’s time should be over,” he said.

While Çeneci was just thinking of getting through each day, he said the election could provide a verdict on the government’s performance and its ability to deal with the daunting recovery.

“Don’t count the first days, as it’s a huge disaster, but after this minute we will see what the government does,” he said.

“[Right now] we don’t have any tears left,” he added. “I hope when this is over, we learn many things from this disaster.”

Source: Al Jazeera