A Year After a Devastating Quake: Container Cities, Trials and Grief


At 4:17 a.m. on Tuesday, thousands of people in cities across southern Turkey gathered to cry, light candles and chant against the government, marking the moment a year ago that a powerful earthquake devastated the region.

The 7.8-magnitude quake, followed by a second violent tremor hours later, damaged or destroyed hundreds of thousands of buildings, killing more than 53,000 people in southern Turkey and another 6,000 people in northern Syria. It was the area’s broadest and deadliest earthquake in hundreds of years.

The scale of the destruction, and the failure of emergency services to reach many people buried in the rubble until days later, angered survivors. Many accused building contractors of cutting corners to increase their profits and the government of failing to enforce safe building standards.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised in the disaster’s aftermath to build large numbers of new homes in a year. That vow remains only partly fulfilled, and efforts to hold people accountable over faulty constructions are proceeding slowly.

Many survivors are still displaced, grieving for lost loved ones and struggling with long-term injuries.

A look at southern Turkey, one year after the earthquake:

After the quake, the government said that 227,000 buildings, containing more than 637,000 units, had been heavily damaged or destroyed. Mr. Erdogan promised that the government would build 319,000 new residences within a year.

But as of late January, only 46,000 new units were ready to be passed to owners, according to the Urban and Environment Ministry. Officials have said that hundreds of thousands of new units are planned or under construction, and that many should be done this year.

The government has also paid rent support to displaced families and started a project to help apartment owners rebuild their collapsed buildings, although some survivors have struggled to access that aid.

But the lag in getting survivors back into their own homes is apparent in the sprawling “container cities” that still dot the quake zone, where hundreds of thousands of people are living in cramped, prefabricated homes. Many lack the money to rent elsewhere or to rebuild destroyed homes.

Much of the anger in the immediate aftermath of the quake focused on building contractors and inspectors, whom survivors accused of doing shoddy work to save money.

So far, courts have taken up 275 cases and others are still being examined, Justice Minister Yilmaz Tunc announced last week. More than 260 suspects have been detained pending trial.

Court hearings have recently begun in a number of cases.

Last month, the trial opened for 11 defendants who stand accused of “willful negligence” in connection with collapse of the Grand Isias Hotel in the city of Adiyaman. More than 70 people were killed, including a group of student volleyball players and some of their parents and coaches.

Another court agreed to hear a case against eight people accused of skirting regulations in the construction of Renaissance Residence, an upscale housing complex in the city of Antakya that toppled, killing hundreds.

A New York Times investigation and forensic analysis found that flawed design, minimal oversight and insufficient safety checks contributed to the collapse.

It is unclear how long such cases will take to make it through the courts, or whether any government officials will be tried.

Last week, Human Rights Watch said that “not a single public official, elected mayor or city council member has yet faced trial” for roles they may have played in greenlighting or failing to protect people from poor construction.

Many survivors fear they will ultimately be denied justice.

Busra Yildiz, a graphic designer based in Britain, said in an interview that her mother, grandmother and two other relatives died when their building collapsed in the quake.

The contractor who built it is in jail, being prosecuted in connection with other failed buildings, but not for her family’s, said Ms. Yildiz, 25. Still, she wants him to be punished.

“I don’t want him to see the sun again,” she said.

Many survivors, dealing with injuries and coping with grief, feel that the government has failed to keep up with the size of the disaster.

On Tuesday, people in Hatay, one of the hardest-hit provinces, booed the provincial mayor and the national health minister, forcing them to flee, according to videos posted on social media. Elsewhere, survivors dropped carnations in the Orontes River to commemorate the dead, and protesters chanted, “We won’t forget! We won’t forgive!”

Asked about residents’ sense that not enough had been done to help, Huseyin Yayman, a lawmaker from Hatay from Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, said that feeling was natural.

“We need houses, buildings and mostly psychologists,” he said in an interview. “All of us are in grave pain.”

In addition to the more than 53,000 killed in Turkey, 134 were still missing, he said. Eighty-three were from his province.

“A year has passed and our pain is still overwhelming,” he said.

Despite frustration in the quake zone with the government’s initial response, Mr. Erdogan won another presidential term in May — even as he faced one of the greatest electoral challenges of his 20 years as Turkey’s paramount politician.

He has defended the government’s response to the earthquake, which he has called “the disaster of the century.”

“We experienced a disaster that collapsed our homes on our heads and burned our hearts, and we will carry the pain it caused inside of us like a burning coal until the end of our lives,” he said on Tuesday, during a ceremony to give new homes to survivors in the city of Kahramanmaras.

Mr. Erdogan said that in recent days, the government had given out keys for more than 27,000 new units in quake-stricken cities and that 20,000 more would be ready soon.

“There are only a few countries and societies that could stand against such a disaster as strongly as Turkey,” he said. “Thank God, on the first anniversary of the earthquake, we have cleaned up the rubble and made significant progress in reconstructing the cities, and people are reclaiming their lives.”

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