26 Aug. - 1 Sep. 1999
Issue No. 444
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Why?By Gareth Jenkins
On Monday the Turkish authorities formally called off the search for survivors of the massive earthquake that struck in the early hours of 17 August, killing an estimated 35,000-40,000 people and spreading destruction across a huge swathe of the northwest of the country. Meanwhile, authorities began a desperate race against time to prevent an epidemic of infectious diseases amongst 250,000 survivors who have been living in the open with neither toilets nor running water for over a week.
In the town of Golcuk, at the epicentre of the quake, the stench of the thousands of decaying corpses still trapped under the rubble of collapsed buildings mingled with the smell of sewage and rotting food. "Cases of dysentery are quadrupling every day," said one aid worker. "There is a very real danger of an epidemic."
By Tuesday, the official death toll from the earthquake, which measured 7.4 on the Richter scale, stood at 12,500, with another 35,000 seriously injured. But Turkish officials estimate that between 25,000 and 30,000 corpses still lie beneath the rubble, making the earthquake the worst disaster in the republic's 76-year history; with a death toll higher than either the 15-year-old civil war against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) or the 1919-1923 Turkish War of Independence.
The most severe damage has been concentrated along the northeastern shores of the Sea of Marmara, particularly in the industrial cities of Izmit and Adapazari and the resorts of Golcuk and Yalova, whose waterfronts were lined with summer houses, mostly owned by residents of Istanbul 60 kilometres to the west.
On Tuesday Turkish officials estimated that over 6,000 buildings had been destroyed and another 150,000 severely damaged over an area stretching 250 kilometres from Istanbul to the Black Sea town of Bolu.
(photos: Khaled El-Fiqi)
"I have been to inspect some of the damaged buildings and all the ones that I saw will have to be demolished," said construction engineer Oral Dogu. "It is too dangerous for people to live in them again."
"Adapazari has become a city of the dead," said the town's mayor Aziz Duran. "It is right on the fault line. If we don't want to be burying another generation thirty years from now then we have to leave and build another city somewhere else."
The earthquake has also delivered a crippling blow to the already ailing Turkish economy. Initial estimates put the economic cost of the earthquake, in terms of damage repair and lost production, at over $25 billion, or around 12 per cent of the country's annual income. Many fear it could be much higher. "It will take us five years just to get back to where we were before the earthquake," predicted one Turkish analyst.
But for most Turks it is still too early to worry about economics. Amidst the shock and grief there has also been an unprecedented outpouring of public fury at the appallingly slow reaction of the Turkish authorities to the disaster, which many have been quick to contrast with the speed and generosity of foreign governments.
Over 2,000 rescue workers from 19 countries flew to Turkey in the aftermath of the earthquake, most of them arriving within less than 24 hours. Dozens of other countries dispatched planeloads of aid. But it was two days before the Turkish authorities had even established a telephone hotline for information about the earthquake and several days more before it had organised rescue teams or relief efforts for survivors.
For four days after the earthquake, the rescue operation consisted of a combination of foreign teams using the latest high-tech equipment and tens of thousands of local people, often scrabbling desperately at the rubble with their bare hands, while local businesses organised relief convoys and privately owned television stations published lists of the injured and the hospitals to which they had been taken.
But the scale of the disaster meant that specialist rescue teams could only cover a limited area. Often, once the local people had removed as much rubble as they could with their hands and primitive tools, they could do nothing but sit by collapsed buildings listening to the desperate cries for help from inside, until the voices weakened and then ceased altogether. Many reported that the only time they saw a representative of the Turkish authorities was four or five days after the earthquake when a civil servant arrived to note down the number of houses in the street which had been damaged.
In cases where the authorities did respond they often hindered rather than assisted with rescue and relief operations. "On Friday we took three truck loads of food, clothing and basic needs to Izmit," said Pinar Ilkkaracan, who heads a Turkish women's rights organisation. "By then some civil servants had arrived. But they kept contradicting each other about where we were supposed to take it all. So, we just ignored them and went off and delivered it to the survivors ourselves."
Statements by government ministers only further inflamed the public. The Health Minister Osman Durmus even announced that foreign medical personnel should be barred from entering the country because they were "incompatible with our culture."
Durmus further infuriated the public by accusing the volunteer Turkish Search and Rescue Association (AKUT) of "staging a show." AKUT, whose members are all doctors or trained mountaineers, arrived at the disaster scene within an hour of the earthquake and, over the next six days, saved literally dozens of lives. It was too much even for Turkey's traditionally docile press. "Just shut up and resign," headlined the daily Radical.
There was fury, too, at the contractors who had built the collapsed apartment blocks. No one doubts that the death toll would have been considerably smaller, perhaps in the hundreds or thousands rather than tens of thousands, if building regulations had been applied.
One contractor, Veli Gocer, who had made a fortune by selling cheap summer houses in Yalova, had to go into hiding when an angry mob of bereaved relatives destroyed his office and set fire to his car, after several of his housing complexes collapsed, killing over 200 people, while nearby buildings not built by Gocer survived intact.
"I tried to save money by using sand from the beach in the concrete," admitted Gocer in a telephone call to a Turkish newspaper. "I am very sorry. I knew many of these people personally. But the state should have stopped me."
It has long been common knowledge in Turkey that many local politicians are bribed by unscrupulous builders not to enforce building regulations. At the national level governments frequently issue amnesties to illegally constructed buildings in the hope of gaining the political support of their occupants. When he was prime minister the current Turkish President Suleyman Demirel, who is himself an engineer and well aware of the dangers of poor construction, issued two such amnesties.
"Suleyman Demirel and people like him are responsible for most of the deaths," wrote columnist Meral Tamer in the daily Milliyet, impervious to the fact that, under Turkish law, even an implied insult to the president carries a hefty prison sentence.
By Tuesday, it was still too early to say whether the Turkish authorities would be able to prevent the outbreaks of disease amongst the earthquake survivors, although there were indications that they at least realised the seriousness of the danger.
Nevertheless, for a people who have traditionally been in awe of the power of the state, there was sense, amidst all the grief and anger, that a taboo had been broken.
"The smell of the decaying state system in Turkey rises from the earthquake region as strongly as the stench of the corpses," wrote newspaper columnist Mehmet Yilmaz. "After this, more democracy is inevitable," said Islamist commentator Fehmi Koru.
But if so, it will come at a terrible price, not only in death and physical destruction but also in the incalculable psychological damage to millions of people. The entire nation has been traumatised, both by the earthquake itself and the subsequent media coverage, with round-the-clock live television pictures of the corpses of tiny children, old men and women, often entire families, being dragged from the rubble; while over the last week those in the earthquake zone have had their fragile nerves frayed still further by over 70 aftershocks in excess of 4 on the Richter scale.
"No one has yet thought about psychiatric treatment, not even for the bereaved or for all these hundreds of thousands who have lost their homes and all their possessions," commented one doctor. "Nor do we have any idea of how many children have been orphaned."
Even amongst those who survived with both their lives and homes intact, there are already signs of widespread trauma, particularly amongst children, where shock, fear and bewilderment have prompted even the youngest to question the most basic of their assumptions about the world around them.
"It doesn't make sense," said five-year-old Zeynep, who, since the earthquake, has been unable to control either her bladder or her bowels. "We do everything for God. But then he sends all this shaking and makes us frightened. Why?"