‘No one can bring back what we lost’: fears rise among poor in Turkish city ravaged by earthquakes

Rows of bright white marble gravestones dot a hillside on the outskirts of Antakya, some bearing the words “martyr of the earthquake”. The final resting place for the city’s dead will soon be overshadowed by tower blocks for those who survived. Bright yellow cranes jut into the skyline on the next hillside, slowly birthing a cluster of concrete skeletons, new government housing for some of the hundreds of thousands who lost their homes when deadly earthquakes struck southern Turkey and northern Syria last February.

“No one can bring back what was lost, as we lost everything,” said İsa Akbaba, who lost seven members of his extended family along with his home.

İsa gently helped his mother, Suat, navigate the muddy hillside leading to the graves of his elder sister, Sıdıka, and his younger brother, Musa, pictures of their smiling faces carved into the headstones. Suat dabbed a little red nail polish, her daughter’s favourite, on Sıdıka’s grave, as she wailed with grief and kissed their gravestones.


Tuesday 6 February will mark one year since the earthquakes wrenched them from their homes and entombed Sıdıka and Musa in the rubble – two among the 50,783 people estimated to have died in southern Turkey, with thousands more still classified as missing and three million displaced.

The destruction spanned an area almost the size of Germany, filling whole cities with mountains of rubble and causing an estimated $148.8bn in damage, according to a report from a Turkish parliamentary inquiry – almost 10% of GDP. Hatay province, where Antakya sits, endured some of the worst losses, with almost half its population displaced and the largest share of the death toll.

In the immediate aftermath, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan toured the destruction and made a series of bold promises for a swift cleanup and fast reconstruction. “We will rebuild these buildings within one year and will hand them back to citizens,” he said, just four days after the earthquakes struck.

Downtown Antakya, one-year after the devastating earthquake. Photograph: David Lombeida/The Observer

Erdoğan promised his citizens that 319,000 new homes would be built by February, with the same amount constructed this year.

A spokesperson for the president’s office said in late January that “the construction of a total of 307,000 houses has started”. Without clarifying the specifics for Hatay, they added: “The delivery of a total of 46,000 houses … has started gradually.”

No matter how long it takes, the Akbabas will not be eligible – they rented their now-destroyed apartment. They will be forced to wait for private construction and the slim chance of finding somewhere they can afford.

For nine months after the earthquakes, the Akbabas mourned the loss of 23 members of their extended family from a tent next to their destroyed apartment block, among the ruins of the city that was once their home. In the hot summer they sheltered under mosquito nets and as winter approached they were grateful to stay together even as they shivered in the open air.

Then one rainy night last November, local officials suddenly ejected them from the makeshift camp, forcing the family into separate container houses in clusters dotted on Antakya’s outskirts. Where their former building once stood is now a sandy pit, as construction workers dig an area to build the foundations of a new tower in its place.

The Akbabas’ suffering remains frozen in time. “Our pain is still fresh,” said İsa.

Suat quickly grew to like her new one-bedroom container home, in a camp with streets named after flowers, even though she agreed to move in only because its proximity to the graveyard meant she could visit her deceased children every week.

A clock near the city centre of Antakya is stuck one year later on the time the earthquake struck. Photograph: David Lombeida/The Observer

İsa resented the family being split up and was increasingly fearful about when the authorities might decide to eject them from the container camps as they did from their tent. Working in construction brought him regular employment, he said, although he complained that some companies involved in the building boom had lacked the money to pay him, as Turkey’s economic crisis rippled through the industry.

Long the historic jewel and largest city in Hatay, Turkey’s southernmost province, Antakya has been emptied by the earthquakes of all but its most determined or impoverished residents. The ancient city is now reduced to large empty stretches where entire neighbourhoods of rubble have been cleared away and where anyone who can afford to has fled. The clock tower at the entrance to the town, surrounded by empty ground dotted with shards of concrete, remains stuck on the time the first tremor struck.

Billboards displaying images of gleaming restoration obscure the slow reconstruction work at the sites of crumbling ancient mosques, bathhouses and covered markets. The UN has even resorted to crowdfunding to raise money to restore some key sites of cultural heritage across the earthquake zone, a sign of the scale of the challenge that still lies ahead.

For Kenan and Sedat Kadde, who run a business making marble gravestones and countertops at the edge of the city, the earthquake created a grim business opportunity. Three months after the earthquakes struck, Kenan noticed a sudden spike in the demand for gravestones as the city’s residents emptied their savings to mourn their dead. The constant flood of orders for headstones continues to engulf them, with Kenan estimating they manufacture four more each day.

“The earthquake became a reason to work,” he said, ruefully. “We don’t know what to pray for: the souls of the dead, more business, or just to be thankful that we’re alive.”

The main artery leading to Antakya city centre, where shops once lined the streets, is now devoid of life. The only sign that people could one day return are the rows of posters obscuring pits and towering dredging equipment, bearing offers of interest-free payment plans next to pictures of austere cement-and-glass four-storey tower blocks. Even the images on the posters show few people.

The exclusive new housing in the images is part of a pilot project intended to spearhead the rebirth of Antakya, once a thriving multicultural city of 200,000 people that has been inhabited since at least the year 300BC, where churches, mosques and synagogues sprung up among the orange and olive groves that line fertile Hatay province.

The vision for the city’s renewal, a masterplan designed by a consortium of international architectural firms spearheaded by Britain’s Foster + Partners, offers something markedly different to Antakya’s past.

Sedat Kadde was sceptical about the rebuilding efforts and neither he nor his brother said they had any interest in buying one of the new apartments despite the offer of government loans.

“The aim of this project is to push poor people out of town,” he said. “If the point is to rebuild the centre for the rich and to leave the poor aside, it would be better not to do it at all.”

Images released last year from the Turkey Design Council (TDC), the organisation overseeing the reconstruction in Antakya, which included 4,900 houses, show sleek brick and glass designs with open boulevards and imported trees – a projection of a new city that locals fear will price them out. The TDC declined to reveal the budget for the project, stating this would be revealed to the public “when the project is completed and the expenses are clarified”.

“We’re not holding out hope for this,” said hotelier Gökhan Tunebaş, inspecting the images released by the TDC. “I don’t want to underestimate the state, but if anyone will do the rebuilding here, it will be the people of Antakya.”

After the earthquake, Isa and his extended family lived in tents outside the collapsed apartment building that used to be their home in Antakya. Photograph: David Lombeida/The Observer

“Remember, they said all of this will be renewed within a year and people haven’t received those homes yet.”

Tunebaş was on the verge of tears, having just returned to the boutique hotel he manages in central Antakya for the first time since it reopened last November, after one wing was destroyed in the earthquake. The hotel is now operational again, housing Tunebaş as well as a dozen guests involved in reconstruction in the immediate area, its brightly lit coffee shop and elegant interior a stark contrast to the derelict buildings and building works directly outside.

The reopening was meant to provide hope for the city’s future, but Tunebaş doubted change could happen fast. “We don’t expect Antakya to be back on its feet for at least another five years,” he said.

Mustafa Özçelik, head of Hatay’s chamber of architects – a union often critical of the state – raised concerns that reconstruction was already under way without a full examination of why so many buildings in Antakya had crumbled in last year’s powerful quakes.

“There’s been no information given to the local population, no explanation about lessons learned,” he said. “So all of these pleasant images can be good if they mean the original communities can live here again. But if this urban renewal project just results in people leaving, it’s a bad thing, despite appearances.”

The masterplan for the city’s rebirth, said Özçelik, remains little more than fantasy, given the slow pace of renewal outside the area earmarked for the pilot project. Local authorities had initially allowed for some feedback for the plans from the chamber of architects and other local organisations, he added, before complaining that listening to their responses would slow reconstruction.

Fencing displays reconstruction plans in Antakya. Photograph: David Lombeida/The Observer

“In reality, this process didn’t take long, it’s just that the government was in a hurry because of the local elections this March,” he said.

Foster + Partners said it was “still in the process of defining our overall vision” and that its “objective for the masterplan is to retain the spirit of the town’s pre-earthquake characteristics”, but that the plans had been rushed due to urgent need.

The TDC pointed to consultations with local architectural groups and said that designs of some of the new buildings would incorporate elements of those that existed before the earthquakes.

“Preserving these details ensures that residents do not feel alienated from the area,” it said.

For lifelong residents of Antakya, such as the Akbabas, the reconstruction is simply a bitter reminder that shiny new buildings can’t bring back the people that once made their city so vibrant. Like many who stayed to live among the ruins, they wonder who might be able to afford the new tower blocks and whether the joyful spirit associated with Antakya can survive its greatest blow in centuries.

“Even if it’s all demolished, it’s still our neighbourhood,” said Isa. “Some of what was lost will never come back. So many of our neighbours left.”

The Guardian