The death toll from the powerful 7.2 earthquake that hit eastern Turkey has risen to 366 people, but there could be many more undiscovered victims in Van province, where houses are makeshift and safety standards rare.
Shocked residents of Van searched among the debris
The powerful earthquake that hit Turkey's eastern province of Van on Sunday has reduced a multi-storey building in the small town of Ercis to twisted rubble. Some of the rescuers are sifting through the wreckage with their bare hands, and people have been looking for survivors all through the night.
Time is running out: up to 28 families may still be buried under the collapsed concrete slabs. The building was only built some five or six years ago, a neighbor says, still in shock. Standing by the wreckage, he is trying to make out any sign of life below.
Even those whose houses have not been destroyed are too afraid to sleep at home. "We spent the night in our car," said Rachad Bayram, owner of a hotel in the town of Van. He was having lunch in a restaurant when the 7.3 magnitude quake hit without warning.
He hid under a table, terrified. He and his family were unhurt, but he is still too afraid to return to his house. "There were aftershocks every 20 minutes or so," he said.
Hayat Bilgisi also wasn’t sure whether her apartment, which outwardly seemed undamaged, might collapse in an aftershock. "I stayed in the university. It was too cold to go outdoors," she said.
Some 100 students and lecturers spent a sleepless night in the university. She wants to leave, but buses and flights out of Van are fully booked. "I just want to go home," she said.
Almost daily earthquakes
Many houses are built with scant attention to safety standards
Around 98 percent of Turkey is prone to earthquakes, while about a third of the country is at high risk, including the areas around the major cities of Istanbul and Izmir and the region of East Anatolia.
Three major fault lines, where geological plates meet, cross Turkey and small tremors are a daily occurrence. Two of these fault lines are located right below Van and Ercis, some 100 kilometers (62 miles) to the north of the provincial capital.
In 1939 almost 40,000 people died in a massive quake in eastern Turkey, while the last major earthquake occurred only 12 years ago, when a 7.4 magnitude quake killed up to 20,000 people in northwestern Turkey.
Houses built without supervision
Yet despite the ubiquitous danger, Turkey remains inadequately prepared for a major disaster. Even in Istanbul, the country’s most modern and developed city, only 25 percent of buildings have been built in line with earthquake safety standards, according to the Housing Ministry.
Many houses are constructed without supervision and with poor quality building materials. The Chamber of Chartered Engineers believes only 1 percent of hospitals and not even 10 percent of all schools in the metropolis have been adequately renovated since the powerful quake that hit the city in 1999. Although the quake’s epicenter was located some 100 kilometers outside of Istanbul, thousands of residents died.
Many more people may be trapped under the rubble
Far away from the modern capital, the situation in the destitute province of Van, bordering Iran and Iraq, is even more dire. Living in relative poverty, most people are simply happy to have a roof over their heads, and safety standards are virtually unheard of.
Even before the quake, the provincial capital resembled a refugee camp - with its dirt roads, lopsided concrete shacks and the constant drone of the city’s many generators. Power cuts are a common occurrence.
The city was already reduced to rubble when it was caught in the crossfire between the Ottoman and Russian armies in World War I. As the starving survivors struggled to rebuild their homes after the war, safety standards were not a major concern.
Poverty and squalor
In the following decades, things did not improve dramatically. The region's inhabitants have once again found themselves caught between two warring factions. The Kurdish guerrilla, the PKK, has been battling the Turkish army from the mountains.
In the course of the decade-long war, many villages have been deserted or forcefully evacuated. For years, farmers have been unable to till their fields and have let their livestock graze in the mountainous areas home to the rebel fighters.
Thousands of poor peasants have been forced to move to the cities' slums, and today many live in abject poverty in makeshift accommodation.
A constant trickle of Afghan and Iranian refugees, crossing into eastern Turkey from Iran, have also begun to cause overcrowding. With living space becoming sparse, safety standards and steel are unobtainable luxuries for those eking out a living in the slums.
Author: Susanne Güsten, Istanbul / Naomi Conrad
Editor: Ben Knight