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Turks blame government negligence for quake devastation

Gunnar Köhne
February 11, 2023

As hope of recovering survivors fades, many grieving Turks are asking why more wasn't done to prepare for the inevitable. DW spoke with survivors living along the Turkish-Syrian border.

People walk past collapsed buildings in Hatay, Turkey
The earthquake and its aftershocks caused widespread destruction across southern Turkey and northern SyriaImage: Burak Kara/Getty Images

Apathy settles in as night falls. The noise of construction machinery ebbs, while the desperate cries of rescuers echo more sporadically from the mountains of rubble. Wrapped in blankets, the survivors stare into the distance. Four days after the powerful earthquake that devastated southern Turkey and northern Syria, hope is fading that their loved ones will be found alive under the tons of concrete and bent steel that cover the streets. The only light in the darkness comes from campfires and the beacons of search teams.

It's a haunting replay of a scene that many remember from another massive earthquake in 1999. I reported on that disaster too, covering the area around the Sea of Marmara in western Turkey. More than 17,000 people died in that disaster. This time, the death toll will be even greater, having already reached 25,000 by Saturday.

The images emerging from this week's recovery efforts are similar to back then. Exhausted rescue workers using pickaxes, sledgehammers or even their bare hands for lack of heavy equipment. People traveling from all parts of the country to help, carrying food, blankets and tents.

A person scrambles up a collapsed building in Kahramanmaras
Nearly a week after the earthquakes, the search for survivors continuesImage: Stoyan Nenov/REUTERS

Still, many desperate people are waiting for help days after the Kahramanmaras earthquake hit on February 6. An elderly man sits on a plastic chair in front of a completely collapsed building in Antakya, on Turkey's southernmost tip. His brother purchased one of the "luxury apartments" in the building last year. Now he presumably lies dead under the rubble of his shoddily built "dream home."

"We build great houses, don't we?" the man remarks bitterly.

Angry voices everywhere

Such complaints are similar to those that followed the last earthquake disaster nearly 24 years ago. Why doesn't the state help us more quickly? Why are new buildings collapsing like houses of cards? Has compliance with building regulations — which were tightened after 1999 — not been enforced? Why, in an earthquake-prone region such as southeastern Turkey, have property developers been allowed to build at seemingly unlimited heights? Why didn't hospitals built by the state withstand the earthquake?

Such questions aren't permitted from the media, which is almost completely controlled by the government, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoganand his Justice and Development Party. But angry voices can be heard everywhere. In the city of Adiyaman, the transport minister was reportedly forced to flee amid savage insults from citizens.

DW reporter Gunnar Köhne
DW's Turkey correspondent Gunnar Köhne spoke with earthquake survivors earlier this weekImage: DW

Hasan Aksungur, chairman of the Chamber of Civil Engineers in the city of Adana, where 11 buildings collapsed, told DW that laws are not to blame. "The question of whether to build three or 10 stories high is about large sums of money. Then "a blind eye gets turned," he said. In the epicenter of Kahramanmaras, about 70 kilometers (about 43 miles) north of Gaziantep, the only building that remained standing belongs to the local Chamber of Engineers.

Geologists' warnings ignored

Another oft-repeated refrain is that this was the quake of the century, one that would have overwhelmed any country on Earth. Especially given its 7.8 magnitude and an affected area that is half the size of Germany, including several cities that are home to millions of inhabitants.

But people also want to know why the warnings from Turkish geologists about growing tensions along tectonic plates were not taken seriously. Leading Turkish earthquake researchers have complained that they were never consulted by a single mayor in the region.

Tens of thousands of rescue workers from across Turkey and abroad are now active in Adiyaman, Antakya and Kahramanmaras — all major cities that were all but destroyed in the earthquake. More remote locations, on the other hand, are still waiting for aid.

Earthquake survivors around a fire in Adana, Turkey.
In Adana, earthquake survivors have been forced to find warmth in the streetsImage: Teri Schultz/DW

Tuncay Sahin, a student from Berlin, comes from the village of Tokar near Adiyaman. His mother was buried in the rubble of her house on the night of the earthquake. Neighbors recovered her body with their bare hands. She was just one of six who died in that village alone.

His father had been out on the day of the disaster. Two days later, Sahin made it back home from Berlin. Now he mourns at his mother's grave. "We all knew there could be earthquakes here, but for it to hit us so badly is beyond comprehension," he said.

His parents built their two-story house in the 1990s. But a new building just a year old also collapsed. "The state should have more control over building practices and materials in the villages," he said.

A few neighbors join in. "From now on, we'll only build one story high here!" one shouted. "Like our ancestors."

This article originally appeared in German.