Before the February 6 disaster, the capital of Hatay province in southern Turkey had a population of 400,000. Today, the city is virtually deserted and resembles a field of ruins.
The city where Mehmet Gül was born 58 years ago, and where he has lived virtually all his life, is now a distant memory. And the neighborhood where he grew up, like all those around it, is a vast field of ruins. From his small, shady courtyard, in front of his devastated house, Antakya reveals a staggering spectacle of chaos and desolation.
“More than six months after the earthquake, the situation remains just as disastrous. Worse still, nobody knows where we’re going,” said Gül. Before the February 6 earthquake and its countless aftershocks, the city had a population of 400,000, rising to over 1.7 million with the surrounding area.
The administrative capital of the Hatay region in southern Turkey, the former Antioch, once the world’s third-largest city, is now almost deserted − collapsed upon itself, as if shattered.
The air is saturated with noise and dust, the result of the incessant to-and-fro of mobile cranes and trucks loaded to the brim with scrap metal and debris. Here and there, a few people tried to salvage steel rods and cables. A kilogram sells for 6 Turkish liras (€0.20) from the wholesalers who are still around.
Almost 92% of the city has yet to be rebuilt. And, according to Mayor Lütfü Savas, 90% of the population has relocated elsewhere.
Behind the tent that has provided shelter for Gül and his family since the earthquake, the roar of excavators and bulldozers has intensified. “You can hear it. They’re getting closer, my house will probably be next.”
A few weeks ago, this retired schoolteacher found a demolition order taped to one of his still-intact windows. Shortly before, two police officers had come to see him. They asked him and his small family if they had any needs.
“They came five months after the disaster, exactly 152 days later. Can you imagine? I couldn’t tell them anything. I’ve always believed in the state, but this time, I took it as an insult.”
Gül admitted that help came quickly in terms of food and clothing, and tents were provided. Electricity has been restored and water was reconnected in April, even if it’s no longer as drinkable as before.
His wife Emel, also retired, added that the municipality of Istanbul has provided significant help by sending containers and staff. “But everything else is in chaos, as if the earthquake had happened yesterday. Everything is terribly slow and completely opaque.”
As the owner of his land, Gül requested 500,000 Turkish liras (€17,000) in state aid to rebuild his property. He has yet to receive a reply. What worries him most is the reconstruction cost, estimated at at least 1.5 million liras.
“With my modest pension of 13,500 liras, I know we won’t make it. Inflation, here as elsewhere, has gone mad, and labor costs have increased five or sixfold. So, I’m waiting without knowing exactly what’s going to happen,” he said. In a more weary tone, he added: “I may have survived the earthquake, but I can’t imagine continuing to live like this, without a roof over my head or a future.”
Across the region, authorities have estimated that 350,000 buildings will have to be demolished. 23,650 deaths have been recorded, with a further 600 people missing – almost half the total number of victims of the disaster, which affected 11 regions.
To the survivors, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has promised to build 300,000 houses within a year, of which, according to his government, almost a third will be allocated to Hatay. The first families should be able to move into their new homes this autumn.
Serbay Mansuroglu also hails from the region. The 30-something, who left his job as a journalist in Istanbul to return to his homeland and become a farmer, now devotes all his time to managing a small container camp located a stone’s throw from Gül’s ruined house. Like him, there are a hundred or so young volunteers and activists from the left-wing Sol party helping the victims and preparing, as best they can, to get the town back on its feet.
“The biggest issue is the blatant lack of organization on the part of the authorities,” explained the young organizer. “Everything is unclear. When we ask questions about the state of this or that building, we don’t get any answers. Should we keep this here, or rebuild there, and on what criteria? We get nothing. This uncertainty leads to a series of problems. People can’t take it anymore. They’re tense and you can feel the violence increasing.”
Dozens of people are crowding the offices of the prefecture to lodge complaints or appeals. Some, in a hurry to have a roof over their heads, are trying to have their dwelling removed from the list of buildings slated for demolition, arguing that they can make do with structural reinforcement.
Others are hoping to apply for an additional dwelling, as the law only allows access to a single dwelling, even if an owner owned several properties before the earthquake. A store can be added if proof is provided.
“The legal complications are innumerable and often insurmountable,” sighed Mansuroglu. “When a resident wants to buy a house that Toki [the national agency for social housing] is about to build, the state plans to subsidize 60% of the price, leaving the individual to go into debt over 20 years for the remaining 40%. The problem is that prices haven’t yet been fixed.”
The list of those eligible was due to be finalized by July 31. It has still not been made public.
At the crisis center of TMMOB, the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects, bitterness also prevails. “We must remember that this was a massive earthquake, three to four times more powerful than the Izmit earthquake in 1999, which had already left its mark on Turkey’s history, and that Hatay was the hardest-hit of all the affected regions,” pointed out Serkan Koç, president of the Hatay Chamber of Urban Planners. “Clean-up operations and infrastructure work accelerated before the general elections in May, but since then, progress has slowed considerably. In addition to the delays and the absence of a new master plan, it’s also, and above all, the choices made by the authorities that raise questions.”
The expert went on to list the factors that complicate the situation: lack of precautions when recovering and transporting debris, failure to comply with pollution standards, non-treatment of asbestos, choice of landfill sites close to nature reserves or agricultural areas, the decision to renovate Hatay airport, despite it being built on a seismic fault and in a flood zone, and so on.
“The most striking issue concerns the land requisitioned for housing reconstruction projects,” continued Koç. “They have chosen only forest, agricultural and grazing areas. The majority of the 30 container cities occupy agricultural land. It makes no sense.”
Before February 6, Hatay’s economy relied mainly on industry, with the nearby port of Iskenderun, tourism, which came to a halt after the earthquake, and agriculture, the province’s second-largest source of income. “Nibbling away at this land,” concluded the urban planner, “is slowly wiping out our last resources.”
In the hills of Antakya, the small village of Dikmece experienced a hectic summer. Several demonstrations were organized against expropriations and plans to cut down olive trees for the construction of housing in Toki. Six people were arrested in early August. A first plot of land, permanently guarded by gendarmes, has been leveled. Soil surveys were conducted.
“My uncle learned that his estate had been reduced by several hundred hectares,” explained Necmettin Tuncer, 57, a farmer and father of three. “He found out online, shortly before the elections, by consulting his profile on the civil register. We appealed. Others have been offered a million and a half liras for their land, but nobody trusts the authorities.”
Necmettin and his family claimed they have had no contact with the town since the earthquake. “We don’t know anything about what’s going on there,” he said. “The schools where we send our children have all been destroyed. As for the people, they’re gone. How could they stay, anyway?”
Sitting in a small white container that serves as his office in central Antakya, Sevdar Sahin, a doctor, was exhausted.
“My city is dead,” he said. “At night, it’s worse. Everything is empty, nightmarish, like in a horror movie.”
President of the Hatay Chamber of Physicians, he deplored the state’s lack of effort to revive it. “The disaster zone status has been lifted, which means that dues and taxes are back in force. Credit assistance, vital for entrepreneurs who lost everything, is back to normal, and bank debts, once frozen, are back in force.”
He claimed that 75 medical positions were opened by the authorities after the earthquake, but only six applications were received.
“A sad result, but understandable when you consider that the salary of a practitioner working in the public sector is half that in Istanbul or Izmir, and there’s nowhere decent to eat or sleep. The few rentals available have more than doubled their rents.”
He added: “More than abandoned, we feel forgotten. It’s very hard, especially when we’re all working to get people back and bring this unique town back to life.”
Yesterday, he dropped his daughter off in Adana to prepare for the start of the new school year. The city is a three-hour drive away. No one has asked him about Antakya.
This article was originally published by Le Monde.
The views and opinions expressed above are the author’s and do not represent those of the Free Turkish Press.