One year after the earthquake: "People need hope in such disasters"
On 6 February 2023, two earthquakes with magnitudes of 7.8 and 7.5 shook south-eastern Turkey and northern Syria. They caused severe destruction. According to official figures, 53,537 people lost their lives in Turkey, many more are missing and more than 500,000 homes were destroyed. While the earthquake region hardly receives any media attention, many people in the region continue to live in a state of emergency. Tens of thousands are still living in emergency shelters and asbestos-contaminated rubble dust is endangering their health. Reconstruction is slow. At the same time, local elections are just around the corner in the earthquake region and people are waiting for answers to many questions.
An interview with Yiğit Göktuğ Torun, Communications Officer at the FNF in Istanbul. He lost both his parents in the earthquake. They were never found under their completely destroyed house in Antakya.
Yigit, this is a difficult anniversary for you. You were there immediately after the earthquake to look for and help your relatives. Since then, you have travelled back and forth to your home town of Antakya in the Hatay region, which was the most devastated of all. What is it like there today? How can we imagine the everyday life of the people who stayed there?
It's very difficult for most of us, especially when you realise that there are still a lot of problems in the region. In the first few months, I couldn't concentrate too much on the problems there because we were still trying to find the bodies of my parents. We were also trying to find accommodation for my aunt, who had survived the earthquake but whose house had been destroyed. After a while, she returned to Hatay with many others, and we realised that the earthquake had not only hit people that night, but that its effects had continued and were still continuing. Many are still living in containers where access to water and food is severely limited. During the rainy days, many of these containers were flooded. Due to the unhealthy environmental conditions, many children in the region have fallen seriously ill. My aunt is one of the lucky ones, as we were able to rent a place for her in another district in Hatay, where she now lives. However, the power goes out almost every day, which is a big problem as people need electricity for heating. There is also still no public transport and the roads are not in good condition. People have to travel by car to buy food, but many cars are damaged because of the broken roads. The aid that people in the region receive does not cover their needs due to high inflation in Turkey. Public education, healthcare and psychological support services are also inadequate. These are things that need to be solved immediately in the city. But there are even more problems. The airport is still not operational, and those who have fled the city or have to come to the Hatay region as part of humanitarian aid have difficulty reaching the city. Rents there have become so expensive that some families are sharing flats. In addition, many are struggling with mental health problems due to their traumatic experiences and there are not enough treatment programmes available. In the first few months, we unfortunately also heard of suicides among the survivors, and many are still struggling with severe depression.
Over the past year, you have been involved in many different ways in the earthquake region – in initiatives for the preservation of cultural treasures, as an election observer, in fundraising and in discussions in the media. What were your experiences? What role does civil society involvement and the self-organisation of local people play in dealing with this disaster?
I think people need hope in such disasters. In my grief, I realised that it helps and heals me to help my community and the people I grew up with. My parents were primary school teachers in small villages and they always celebrated the national holidays with the children there. After the earthquake, we organised a campaign for children in some districts of Hatay to celebrate these holidays with them. They are still children and deserve hope and happiness just like other children in the country. I was also active in the organisation Nehna (which means "We" in Arabic), where we published articles about our culture and cultural treasures of the region and organised fundraising campaigns in various cities such as Istanbul and Ankara. I think this is very important. As long as we preserve our cultural values and the unique characteristics of our region, we also have hope. This hope gives us the strength to rebuild our city, not only physically but also in other dimensions.
As already mentioned, I was also active as an election observer during the elections. The elections were a very special experience for the locals. Many returned to the city just to cast their vote. Although we no longer had a home and it was difficult to reach the city, many felt responsible for casting their vote in their destroyed city, our destroyed home. Seeing so many people taking on this responsibility gave me a lot of hope.
The state's achievements in reconstruction have fallen far short of the promises made during the election campaign. Elections are now coming up again – the local elections on 31 March. What role does the earthquake play in this and how do the candidates intend to convince voters?
To this day, not all the ruins have been cleared. We still have piles of rubble in the city and many people don't know what will happen to the city. It looks as if many people will not have a home for themselves and their families for years to come. The bureaucratic processes also gave us a hard time. I waited six months for the death certificates of my parents, whose bodies have still not been found. There is a lack of jobs, and many people can no longer work in agriculture because there is simply no accommodation near where they work. This creates pressure to move away. And yet many want to stay. Something needs to be done about these conditions, because people don't want to be dependent on state aid, which doesn't cover the cost of living anyway. In this context, we should also look at the elections differently: In the last local elections, the majority of people in Hatay voted in favour of the opposition party CHP, and the municipality has been governed by the opposition ever since. Many feel that they are now being penalised for this and are not receiving the help they need for reconstruction. For this reason alone, I believe that there will be a feeling of having to vote for the governing party in the local elections. But that harms the democratic process. On the other hand, the CHP has put up the incumbent mayor of the city as a candidate again - most people also consider him to be guilty of the bad situation. People have little hope that the elections will bring a good or sustainable solution for the reconstruction of the city, no matter who we vote for. I think this is very dangerous because if people lose hope in democracy and the elections, we could have other problems. The people in the earthquake zone don't need ideologies or party programmes, they want to see concrete action on the essential needs of the city. This is still lacking in the election campaign, on both sides.