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İTİRAZ: The post-quake legal struggles faced by Antakya residents
Following the Feb. 6 earthquakes, Nur Dalkaya’s two-year-old duplex apartment in central Antakya was labeled “heavily damaged”. Buildings with that designation normally get demolished, but for Dalkaya and her neighbors, the structure’s fate now lies with a pending court case.
“[Our] building was built to be resistant to earthquakes,” said Dalkaya, a ballet teacher and resident of Hatay for 11 years. “In fact, it was not damaged by the earthquake. Two other neighboring buildings caused the damage.”
To prove her point, Dalkaya shared pictures with Turkey recap showing adjacent buildings tilting sideways into her home in what used to be a wealthy neighborhood. She continued, saying she had many questions about the level of damage to her property and who was responsible for it.
So, starting in late March, she began gathering documents and filed a lawsuit to challenge the damage assessment decision on the building.
“A lot of shady things are happening in Antakya right now. That’s why we want a full investigation,” Dalkaya said. “Even if it will be demolished, someone is responsible. I want the one who committed a crime to be punished. I want justice.”
The earthquakes caused indescribable pain for Dalkaya and countless Antakya residents. Added on top of that now are many long and complicated legal battles. Dalkaya recalled following up on official procedures, which meant walking from one state authority to another – in the sun, in the dust – at times with tears in her eyes.
“I never thought of moving abroad,” Dalkaya said over the phone, her voice filled with sorrow. “I could have lived in any other place, but I decided to stay. Yet this country makes you miserable.”
In Hatay, where the earthquakes caused the most destruction, Dalkaya is one of many residents taking damage assessment decisions to court. Buildings involved in litigation stand starkly in empty lots, surrounded by varying amounts of rubble, with spray-painted warnings on their facades, such as: "Don't demolish. Engaged in a lawsuit!”
The words reflect the latest phase of the city's recovery, a process documented step-by-step through street graffiti, starting with painful messages like, “There is a body here” right after the disaster. Then shifting to hopeful slogans like, “Hatay, we will be back.”
These days, Antakya’s latest wave of graffiti is mostly about the damage levels and legal statuses of remaining buildings. “Hands off,” is written on one home. “Taken to court” on some others. Though many simply bear the word ‘itiraz’, meaning ‘objection’.
In recent weeks, Turkey recap spoke to four Hatay residents who legally challenged damage assessment decisions. Those interviewed cited a combination of suspicion and mistrust over state rulings and procedures, though some also sought to reduce the risk levels placed on their buildings just to secure shelter before the winter.
In two separate phone calls with Turkey recap, the Ministry of Environment, Urbanization and Climate Change denied all accusations of wrongdoing during the damage assessment process. Yet independent experts and sources on the ground said at least a portion of the inspections needed to be conducted in a more professional manner, and some damage assessments may not reflect the actual state of some buildings.
The result is the current wave of objections, and each building in litigation cannot be demolished until court proceedings have concluded. As judges decide what to do with each property in dispute, the process will add another layer of delay to rubble removal, reconstruction, and an eventual return to normalcy – or something like it – in Antakya.
Taking the speed of ongoing clean up efforts into consideration, experts estimate rubble removal in the Hatay province could take an additional year following the completion of judicial procedures for disputed buildings.
The most optimistic prediction that Turkey recap heard regarding the province’s return to at least semi-normalcy was two years, and that came from AKP MP Hüseyin Yayman.
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Within days of the initial disaster, which officially claimed more than 50,000 lives in Turkey and Syria, ministry officials, academics, and volunteer civil engineers went into the field to assess the damage. The first building inspections were being conducted even as search and rescue efforts continued for survivors beneath the rubble.
Impacted buildings were grouped into three categories depending on the severity of the damage: low (az hasarlı), moderate (orta hasarlı), and heavy (ağır hasarlı). These categories only apply to a building’s level of damage after the earthquakes and do not provide information on the building’s resistance in the case of future earthquakes.
All buildings in the earthquake region were given five-digit identification codes. Using the codes, government officials prepared assessment reports for every building to describe their level of damage and status after the earthquakes.
Focusing on the buildings’ columns, engineers measured the levels of damage for structural elements and uploaded pictures of them to a system where users could also locate the building on a map.
Through criteria established by AFAD, Turkey’s disaster management authority, teams added their inspection results into the system, where property owners could view damage assessments via the government’s digital citizens portal, e-devlet.
According to the ministry’s website, houses assessed as ‘heavily damaged’ must be demolished – their status is beyond repair. ‘Moderately damaged’ buildings need to be reinforced before they can be used again, while buildings designated as ‘low damage’ can be entered and lived in without any changes because there is no damage to structural elements.
Yet throughout this assessment process, disagreements have arisen. Gökay Gökdemir is representing two Antakya buildings in litigation and is currently waiting for court decisions. He told Turkey recap that while the ministry designated a two-floor house belonging to his uncle for demolition, independent experts disagreed with the official assessment.
“My uncle is an Almancı, and you know how strict German people are with the rules,” he joked on the phone, using the slang word for Turks in Germany.
According to Gökdemir, his uncle insisted on using German building codes during the building’s construction. He also stressed several engineers and an independent report concluded the building was not heavily damaged. As a result, Gökdemir hung a banner on to his uncle’s building, warning clean up crews not to demolish it.
"If it’s necessary, we are okay with reinforcing the building, and my uncle also told us to demolish it … if it's badly damaged," Gökdemir said, stating the family wants a thorough investigation before taking further action.
Mistakes were made
Civil engineer Adnan Özçelik serves as a structure-strengthening advisor for buildings affected by the earthquake, and as part of the Hatay Chamber of Civil Engineers, he participated in the training sessions the chamber organized to teach people how to conduct damage assessments. According to Özçelik, “a considerable amount of” inspection results might be faulty.
“I witnessed a lot of inaccurate results,” Özçelik told Turkey recap in a mid-July interview.
He said the building currently hosting his office – which remains fully operational despite the cracks in the walls – was designated incorrectly because photos of another building were uploaded to the system, and some residents mistakenly added the address of the heavily-damaged building next door.
Separately, Özçelik said many inspectors didn’t want to be responsible for future problems or hazards.
“On some occasions, they [inspectors] stayed on the safe side and labeled buildings as heavily damaged.”
In other cases, according to Özçelik, the damage levels were underestimated.
“They either didn’t see it, didn’t inspect it well enough, or were not good at their jobs,” he continued. “Because of the scale of the disaster, uneducated personnel were in the field. That’s why we are seeing so many disputed decisions.”
Turkey’s Chamber of Civil Engineers (İMO) was also active in the initial inspection process. Thousands of their members joined efforts voluntarily. In their evaluation report published on March 20, İMO claimed state officials pushed for a rapid completion of damage assessments, decreasing the trustworthiness of the results.
Unqualified volunteers were also a part of the efforts, which didn’t help. The report highlighted other inconsistencies, like address mix-ups or incorrect damage level inputs for buildings.
“It was a big problem to find any teams for Hatay in the beginning,” recalled one of the volunteer civil engineers. The engineer, who withheld his name, was part of the initial inspection efforts in Gaziantep and Kahramanmaraş, but described the situation as ‘dystopic’ when he arrived in Antakya.
“There was no coordination,” the engineer said. “Since we didn’t even know where to sleep or what to eat, many [volunteers] didn’t want to come to Hatay. It was a big disaster and there were not enough people.”
Those who arrived mostly slept in their cars, and according to the engineer, they were the first officials many earthquake survivors encountered during their initial inspections.
Asked if he noted any problems with the process, the engineer replied, “Of course.”
“The training we received was too basic, and our methods were based on visual observations,” he said, adding, “More detailed inspections were needed … Especially in some buildings, we were even scared to walk on the same sidewalk with them, let alone enter them.”
“There was a cracking sound coming from [some] buildings, and we didn't want to die,” he continued. “A lot of buildings were inspected under those circumstances. The system is full of mistakes, and the damage assessment process is a part of it."
As rubble removal work continues for heavily damaged buildings in the city center as well as villages, the Hatay Bar Association has filed thousands of objections to damage assessments, demanding more evidence be collected.
“We are involved in 8,260 post-earthquake investigations as a legal party,” lawyer Cihat Açıkalın, the head of the association, told Turkey recap.
Açıkalın said more detailed investigations were needed to better determine the cause of structural damage. In some cases, human error may have exacerbated the damage caused by the earthquakes.
“For example, let’s say you cut some parts in a building,” he said, referring to home renovations by tenants. “And [the building] collapsed during an earthquake. Who was responsible for it? The earthquake, or you, or another thing? As a legal expert, I want evidence of this.”
According to the Ministry of Environment, Urbanization and Climate Change, in all of Turkey, a total of 850,000 units were either destroyed or are considered heavily damaged and will need to be destroyed. Of those, 680,000 were houses or apartments, and the remaining 170,000 units were businesses.
Asked by Turkey recap, the ministry said there was no data on the number of low and moderately damaged buildings nor the number of objections. Regarding allegations of inaccuracies in the inspection process, one official said: “Of course, people can make accusations, but what has been done continues in a correct way.”
During a second phone call, another official told Turkey recap that objections to damage assessments are currently not on the Ministry’s agenda.
“It shouldn’t be an important issue,” the official said. “You shouldn’t take it seriously either. There are no major issues as far as we know, and if there were any, they would be solved in the field.”
Nermin Yıldırım Kara, a CHP MP from Hatay, shared more detailed information that her team gathered from sources in the governor’s office in Hatay.
“As of today, 17,250 of 57,000 heavily damaged buildings [in Hatay] have been demolished and their debris removed,” Yıldırım Kara said in written responses to Turkey recap in mid-August.
According to information shared by Yıldırım Kara, in total, 80,500 buildings in the province were either destroyed or labeled as moderately damaged, heavily damaged or “urgent need for demolition” – a special designation for structures that pose public safety hazards and should be taken down immediately. She estimated that around half of the buildings listed for demolition are still waiting for removal crews.
In addition to voicing concerns about the toxic substances in much of the rubble, Yıldırım Kara said residents that have contacted her in recent months raised many questions over damage assessment procedures.
She said some residents cited inconsistencies in the inspection process as their reason for litigation. Many also filed objections to request further investigations into properties and the reasons for their damages.
“They said that the officers only conducted a visual review regarding the exterior of the building and made their decision depending on that,” Yıldırım Kara continued. “People were skeptical and unsure. There were doubts about whether a real investigation had been carried out.”
The CHP MP also criticized the shifting state policies regarding the future of standing buildings in the earthquake zone.
Two weeks after the earthquakes, Turkish Pres. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced mid-level damaged buildings would be demolished.
Yet the Ministry of Environment, Urbanization, and Climate Change continued enforcing pre-existing terms, which required the reinforcement for mid-level damaged buildings within one year’s time to avoid demolition.
Even so, after six months and several earthquakes with magnitudes higher than 4.0 in Malatya between Aug. 10-13, the Minister of Environment, Urbanization, and Climate Change Mehmet Özhaseki put mid-level damage buildings back on the to-be-demolished list – without attempting to adapt any legal requirements. The decision remains verbal at the time of publishing.
“When the officials said moderately damaged buildings should be reinforced, people tried to get their houses repaired,” Yıldırım Kara said.
“But after the earthquake in Malatya, the ministry stated houses with moderate damage were very stressed, so they should be demolished,” she continued. “This statement literally caused chaos among the citizens. Not knowing what to do, they wonder which way the process will evolve.”
Back in Antakya, resident Mete Aslan said he objected to his building’s assessment results – heavily damaged – but nothing changed.
“We accept every decision our state has made,” Aslan said. “Yet people suffered a lot during the process.”
He said he was okay with the outcome but struggled to understand the attitude he faced from “the state”.
“Me included, we are all victims, and we needed to go and wait in line in these [summer] temperatures,” to follow procedures, Aslan told Turkey recap.
He then recounted the difficulties of delivering necessary documents to government offices scattered around a city in which public transportation remains limited.
“After a certain level, one can’t take it anymore and gives up,” he said. “We don’t make an effort anymore. Things are that bad, believe me.”
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