“Can anyone hear my voice?”: Earthquake survivors seek justice, dignity a year on
ANTAKYA – Tuesday morning at 3:50 am, thousands of people gathered by the wrecked city center of Antakya with cloves and basil in their hands. It was cold and a thick mist hung in the air, concealing the surrounding damage, which didn’t need to be seen to be felt.
For the 11 southern and southeastern provinces struck by the magnitude-7.7 and 7.6 earthquakes on Feb. 6 last year, it was a day of sorrow and anger; one to remember what was lost, and a chance to confront the officials who attended the memorial in Antakya.
Turkish search-and-rescue teams did not reach Hatay for three days, the most critical time-frame for saving lives after the disaster. Instead, initial rescue efforts were led by mining groups, a few foreign search-and-rescue crews and local survivors who used their bare hands to dig people out of the rubble.
According to official figures, the earthquakes and their aftershocks killed more than 50,000 people and injured at least 107,000.
At the time, Hatay Mayor Lütfü Savaş said initial rescue efforts were delayed because Turkish teams were “bringing their own equipment, and [took] the land route.” As a result, many people screamed for days beneath the rubble, and many froze to death under collapsed buildings.
And so, when Savaş and Health Min. Fahrettin Koca arrived at the commemoration Tuesday morning, the crowd of thousands shouted in anger, repeating: “Government, resign!”
Mehmet Uslu, a 45-year-old repairman from Antakya, was among them.
“I lost my father in the earthquake,” Uslu told Turkey recap. “My mother is sick and she was left under the rubble for eight hours. It was me and my brothers who were able to pull her out.”
Uslu went on, saying his anger boiled over with the sight of public officials at the memorial.
“Those people, who didn’t even ask how we were doing for one year, came and rubbed salt in our wounds when all we wanted to do was to dignify our losses on this day.”
‘Can anyone hear my voice?’
During the ceremony, a delegation consisting of Özgur Özel, head of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Savaş, Koca, İstanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu and clergymen from various faiths stood side-by-side as the crowd whistled and jeered.
Then, the whistles turned into unified chants. The crowd demanded resignations from responsible officials and, from time to time, shouted: “Can anyone hear my voice?”
One could easily get caught up in the pain and anger seen in the eyes of the attendees, many of whom were mourning the loss of their loved ones, their memories, dreams and their beloved city.
Pain is pain, but in Antakya’s case, it’s not just the silent screams of empty lots, it’s the loss of a world-class gem – a city of historic heritage, gastronomy and coexistence, where Sunnis, Alewites, Christians and Jews lived together for so long.
‘I see that it’s all a show’
Today, the city feels like a large construction site. Most of the debris is gone, but excavators continue scooping away at mounds of rubble, raising dust clouds for a second year now. You can feel it in your throat and see it on your clothes and car.
İbrahim Yanar, a 33-year-old unemployed single father of two toddlers, said he is certain his voice has not been heard. Before the earthquake, he was working as an accountant, but his workplace collapsed, and so did his house.
Now, he’s living in a tent with his children and he says he’s lost his soul.
“I don’t expect anything from the government,” Yanar told Turkey recap. “I see that it’s all a show. Hatay has been left an orphan, an exclusion from the rest of the country.”
The father said he was very upset with remarks by Pres. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who visited the province last weekend and asked for support in the upcoming March 31 elections.
“If the central government and the local government don’t work hand in hand, if they are not in solidarity, nothing good will come to the city,” Erdoğan said Sunday. “When has Hatay received anything? Right now, Hatay is left strange and sad."
Yanar’s main concern now is to make sure his children adapt to a healthy life following the trauma of the earthquake. Their sleep and eating schedules are still all over the place, he said.
‘I believe in him’
But not everyone is upset with the president. Kaddur Paral, a 75-year-old Antakya resident, said Erdoğan is the politician who can fix this situation.
Paral stays in a container with his Syrian wife, and they live a modest life in 21 square meters.
“I believe in him,” Paral told Turkey recap.
Although he lost his 50-year-old daughter in the earthquake, he said Erdoğan still gives him hope, even if it’s just a little.
“I cry when I’m by myself. This is not a life to live,” he said. “But what can I do? It’s Allah’s will for us.”
Paral worked in the UK as a cabinet maker for over three years to save money and build a house in his hometown. He’s traumatized after losing everything he had made in less than two minutes during the initial tremor.
“I had built that house by myself, with my own hands,” he said.
He then explained he didn’t get official permission for his three-story building, but it was condoned in 2018 when the government granted a zoning amnesty ahead of elections that year. His feelings remain mixed.
“Maybe someone should have inspected our building,” he said.
In Antakya, the joy is gone, the memories are fading by the moment, and there is a huge sense of hopelessness that has swept over locals.
One year on, the bruises haven’t been mended as Erdoğan promised last year, shortly after the earthquakes. Perhaps, the bruises have gotten worse.
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