As Turkey Counts Its Dead, a Reckoning Is Still To Come

With a death toll expected to surpass 100,000, how will the nation come to terms with what happened and move forward?

As Turkey Counts Its Dead, a Reckoning Is Still To Come
Families who lost their relatives seen at a cemetery in Turkey on Feb. 20, 2023. (Seckin Senvardar / dia images via Getty Images)

Late on Monday, a second earthquake of magnitude 6.3 struck the Turkey-Syria border area two weeks to the day after the region’s worst earthquake in a century left tens of thousands dead and destroyed over 110,000 buildings.

Not since Hiroshima and Nagasaki have entire city centers been wiped from the earth in the course of a few hours. Similar in scale to the Little Judgment Day of 1509 (a 7.2 quake that damaged half of Ottoman Istanbul), the evil twin earthquakes of Feb. 6 have destroyed at least four ancient cities in southern Turkey — Antakya, Iskenderun, Adiyaman and Kahramanmaras — and probably hundreds of villages as well.

“Adana is mostly fine,” says Giuseppe, an Italian journalist, speaking of Turkey’s fifth-largest city. “Urfa isn’t too bad; Gaziantep a little worse,” referring to the country’s sixth-largest city, whose 2,000-year-old castle crumpled. “But Adiyaman, Kahramanmaras [two cities with populations of about 270,000 and 560,000, respectively] and Hatay,” the latter being Turkey’s southern-most province, a beautiful mountainous enclave between Syria and the Mediterranean Sea, “are the apocalypse.”

Straddling many of the world’s most dangerous geopolitical and geological fault lines, Turkey is no stranger to catastrophe. But last week’s disasters are pushing many to the proverbial edge. “It’s worse than Armenia in 1988,” says Mickey, a veteran cameraman who covered the cataclysmic quake that caused the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union, “and far worse than Kathmandu,” a 7.8 eruption in 2015 that killed 9,000, moved the Nepali capital by three meters, and induced a deadly avalanche on Mount Everest.

For what it’s worth, the calamity of Feb. 6 was the worst crisis in Turkey since the major earthquake of 1939, when the country was still recovering from over 10 years of total war (1912–23) and had merely 17 million people, roughly the size of Istanbul today (and sustained 30,000 deaths). Contrast that with Feb. 6, which directly affected 13.5 million of the country’s 83 million people, or 16%. If an equivalent disaster struck the United States, it would mean the semi-destruction of the entire West Coast, Alaska and Hawaii.

In Turkey, the America of the Old World with its highly mobile population, everyone has been affected. “My story’s nothing special,” says Coskun, a waiter in Istanbul who lost 15 of his in-laws in Hatay. “Everyone in Turkey has a similar tale.” That’s especially true of major cities, where everyone has at least one friend whose family was visited by death two Monday mornings ago.

The government has been quick to condemn its opponents for “politicizing” the catastrophe, but it has a hard case to sell. If the adage that “all politics is local” has any truth to it, last week’s catastrophe is impossible to depoliticize. If societal collapse isn’t political, then what is? As Hannah Arendt once wrote, “You can’t rule over dead people.”

The heart of the matter lies in one short, contested sentence: “Earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do.” Although it’s not strictly true, it’s close enough. In central Adiyaman, for example, where nearly every building collapsed or saw severe damage, even City Hall was reduced to an ignominious pile of rubble. Across the street, however, the Kommagene Cultural Center, a modern glass building finished in 2022 with EU funds and according to EU standards, stands tall, without a single glass pane fractured. The other two buildings to survive intact? The local Chamber of Architects and Chamber of Engineers.

Although the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been in power for 20 years, it’s not fair to place the entire blame on Turkey’s ruling party. Yes, a series of “construction amnesties” culminating in 2018 “legalized” millions of poorly built buildings as earthquake-ready and up-to-code. Although murderous in outcome if not intent, this maneuvering was also like a socioeconomic tsunami — a continuation of countless retroactive legalization schemes that have transformed Turkey since the 1980s from a country of “gecekondus,” or urban slums, to flatscreen-having high-rises in less than two generations. When one person breaks the law, it’s illegal. When everyone does it, you draw up a general amnesty.

Was Turkey’s urban and economic transformation over the past half-century entirely haphazard? The sad answer, of course, is that it needn’t have been. As the liberal weekly Oksijen reminded its readers, the same headlines were splattered across newspapers after the 1939 Erzincan Earthquake: “Fraudulent construction exacerbates disaster!” read Son Posta on Jan. 4, 1940. As today’s editors of Oksijen now lament, “How has nothing changed in 83 years?”

The answer is the same as it’s always been, from Babylon to the Bronx: money doesn’t grow on trees. But it does grow on real estate speculation. Turkey’s significant enrichment over the past half-century has been the result of several key factors: first, of course, is incredibly hard work. In addition to being highly educated, Turks work 50 hours a week, 33% more than the EU average. Much of this is exploitation and much of it grit, determination and drive. No one can accuse them of not being among the hardest-working, and hardest-hustling, in the world.

The next great factor in Turkey’s enrichment, along with tourism and manufacturing, is real estate speculation. As the urban historian Dogan Kuban wrote, this quickly became the chief national activity from the 1950s onward. Like the new money created out of thin air when banks make loans, speculation was the tinder that lit Turkey’s great economic boom:

In a developing country, under the pressure of immigration, and in a working democratic system, reconstruction practices cannot be controlled by plans. … The only mechanism which controls growth is speculation, and plans were prepared to serve speculation. The word speculation covers a formidable range of interests, from landowners and land and building speculators to car manufacturers, construction firms, the manufacturers and sellers of construction materials, the hundreds of thousands of jobless, unqualified workers, i.e. recent peasant immigrants, thus absorbing social unrest, even helping the street hawkers to sell their merchandise, raising the hopes of the homeless, creating an atmosphere of activity, and producing a sense of accomplishment in the minds of the masses. … Land speculation, which eventually constituted the basic economic activity of Istanbul and Turkey, was not a simple phenomenon of pillage. It coincided with many historically approved demands of a developing country, answered many desires expressed since the Tanzimat, satisfied the demands of self-identity, in fact proved to be the most self-satisfying social activity for the second half of the 20th century.

Over the weeks and months ahead, the witch hunt for shoddy corner-cutting contractors will only bring fleeting satisfaction and little to no closure. “Every other shopkeeper is a developer in Turkey!” says Metin, a taxi driver in Istanbul, speaking of Turkey’s notorious “muteahhit,” or developers. “Turkey has over 300,000 of them!” he fumes. “A hundred times more than Germany! Every grocer is a muteahhit on the side in this madhouse of a country.” How safe is your building? I ask him. “I’ll be fine, thank God,” he says. “My muteahhit lives above me.”

Even for a country of go-getters, Turkey’s official number of muteahhit, at 330,000, is somewhat shocking, with 60,000 in Istanbul alone. Making them all pay for Feb. 6 would entail a small politicide. “My father went broke in the ’90s trying to make high-quality concrete,” says Nihat, a writer who grew up near the mining town of Zonguldak on Turkey’s Black Sea coast. “He was a highly educated construction engineer with a specialized master’s degree who later became the mayor. But when he tried to make a company selling high-quality concrete, no one would buy it.”

The difference in price for building with earthquake-resistant concrete, in today’s lira, was 500 Turkish lira (TL) per square meter, or 60,000 TL for a standard 120-square-meter apartment, or about $3,000. “For an extra three grand, then, you’d be alive today,” he sighs. “But people weren’t having it.” When the 1999 Izmit earthquake hit the eastern outskirts of Istanbul, killing at least 17,000, Nihat’s father drove the crane he had bought for his failed concrete company to Izmit to help dig survivors and bodies out of the rubble.

The scale of the disaster is very difficult to comprehend. In villages outside Adiyaman, wolves had already gotten to the bodies of “depremzede,” or earthquake victims, before rescue teams could show up. In Antakya, the capital of Hatay province, one journalist spoke of hearing voices of survivors crying from the rubble, knowing all too well that no one would ever rescue them in time, much less himself. One friend lost three cousins in Hatay, all of whom were texting frantically for help until the bitter end, or until their phones died, whichever came first.

It’s not just families, neighborhoods and entire cities that were wiped out. In Hatay, the last remnants of Antakya’s 2,500-year-old Jewish community was also destroyed in the earthquake. Both the synagogue, built in the 1830s, and its last caretaker, Saul Cenudi, along with his wife, Fortune, died in the early hours of Feb. 6. Bolstered by special forces, Israeli first responders recovered their bodies from the rubble. Under the guise of disaster recovery, a source within the community told New Lines, Israeli forces are now scouring southern Anatolia to help whatever Jewish survivors remain to emigrate to Israel. In Hatay, the ancient Jewish community is no longer.

Whatever your faith in the five stages of grief, many in Turkey are experiencing all at once. Start with denial. “Everyone knows the American warship caused the earthquake!” says Murat, a 20-something driver. Referring to the USS George H. W. Bush, a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier that entered Turkish waters on Feb. 8 in anticipation of providing humanitarian assistance — according to the “imperialist” press — Murat was immovable in his convictions. “How do you defend yourself now, my American friend?!” I’m not sure we have that kind of technology, I respond. If we did, someone might have used it on China long ago. “No you wouldn’t!” he shoots back. “U.S. businessmen own half of China!”

The second stage of grief, anger, is also reaching new breaking points. To be sure, liberal and secular-minded Turks have been furious with the status quo for a very long time. Although some people are less prone (with ample reason) to take to the streets, they’ll use social media, which has been on fire for the past two weeks. As could only happen in Turkey, one meme making the rounds is a rehashing of Hammurabi’s code: “If a builder builds a house for someone, and does not construct it properly, and the house which he built falls in and kills its owner, then that builder shall be put to death.”

Many conservatives, for their part, are skipping bargaining and depression and going straight for the fifth stage, acceptance. In Turkey, as elsewhere, this is sometimes called fatalism, sometimes stoicism. For many, utterances of “God’s will” are infuriating and self-fulfilling. Yet as one friend’s father said after the coup attempt of July 16, 2016, “We survived the Mongols. We survived the English. And we’ll survive this,” referring to the secretive Gulenist movement that nearly took over the Turkish state seven years ago. “We’re from Erzurum,” a city in eastern Anatolia. “There’s nothing we can’t survive.”

Central to relief efforts has been the profound solidarity of Turkish society, one of the strongest in the world. “If a catastrophe of this scale struck the U.S.,” says a Turkish-American academic, “the country would collapse. We’re selfish and used to far too many comforts; we’d never rise to the challenge.” Although it’s questionable to lionize a people in profound pain, one saving truth remains: Turkey is a nation of selfless first responders.

Within hours of the disaster, thousands of neighborhood associations sprang up all around the country to provide emergency assistance to the “depremzede” (victims). Medicine, blankets, food, water, heaters, tampons, batteries, clothing and tents were collected from every age and social class and sent en masse to the affected areas, along with tens of thousands of civilian volunteers. Of course it was too little, too late. In the face of a 7.8 quake rippling across a sea of shoddily-built apartments, civilian aid was never going to be enough to stem the tide of death and suffering. Only an act of God, or a good mayor, could do that.

Enter Okkes Elmasoglu, for example, the 42-year-old mayor of Erzin, the only city in Hatay province where not a single building was damaged and not a single person perished. For a small region that has already probably lost 10,000 people, Erzin’s mayor is becoming a legend: for once, this local official simply put his foot down and didn’t allow illegal construction — and punished, fined and prevented it wherever possible.

Another unsung hero is Turkey’s TOKI (“Toplu Konut Idaresi”), the government-backed social housing agency that has built nearly 1.2 million affordable units across the country over the past 19 years. While not always the most attractive, these ubiquitous, affordable and spartan buildings dot the skyline of every city in the republic. Remarkably, in none of the 11 regions did a single TOKI-made building fall. Although hundreds of municipal buildings collapsed last week, at least one state-run agency can stand tall.

Second only to the sin of poor construction, a crime for which most of Turkey is a co-defendant, is the question of the state’s response.

President Erdogan is on record saying that his government was not adequately prepared, but that no state could have been prepared for a disaster of this size. Nonsense, say his critics. After the 1999 earthquake, for which the state’s response was widely ridiculed, 24,000 soldiers were immediately sent to help with disaster relief. In comparison, by Feb. 7, nearly 30 hours after this year’s disaster struck, only 12,000 search and rescue personnel had been sent to all 11 regions. The rest of the hard work was left to civil society organizations, desperate survivors and foreign volunteers, say critics.

Others, however, including a team of Italian rescue workers that volunteered in Turkey after the 1999 Izmit earthquake, say that Afad, the state-run search and rescue organization, did excellent work and was everywhere it possibly could be.

This author, too selfish, incompetent and scared to visit the disaster zone, cannot confirm the claims of either. “Whoever goes to the region for whatever reason — to help, witness or report upon — becomes a “depremzede,” or victim, themselves,” says Nihat. “One of my friends, a mountaineer type, spent four days in Hatay trying to help with the search and rescue. He came back a broken man, unable to sleep or talk about what he’d seen.”

Others have less traumatizing but no less harrowing tales of trying to help. One aid worker, Busra, whose own family had to flee Malatya because of the quake, spent five nights sleeping on the cold floor of an open market with 200 other volunteers in Antakya. “We got no sleep, couldn’t shower or change our clothes, and didn’t have a clean place to go to the bathroom,” she says. “And yet we met hundreds of wonderful people every day. Locals, soldiers, aid workers, internationals. I must have hugged 300 people goodbye on the last day. Even the communists in our group were hugging and kissing the gendarmes by the time we left!”

On their way to the airport, where dozens of “depremzede” along with several rescued cats were among the passengers back to Istanbul, they stopped in a small village of Hatay that had been badly damaged. There they met with Emel Korkmaz, the beloved mother of Ali Ismail Korkmaz, a student who was beaten to death by police during the Gezi Park protests of 2013 and is now something of a national leftist icon. Though Turkey feels like an eternity away from the ebullient spring of 2013, for Emel the struggle continues. “All communications were knocked out in her village,” says Busra, “but Emel Sister was running back and forth to get every possible item for everyone in the village for the past nine days. From food and water to tampons and heaters, Emel Sister somehow secured it. She was an emblem of hope and a beacon to all.”

As Turkey comes to grips with its worst calamity in a century, the five stages of grief will be in stiff competition during the days, months and years to come. Never mind the chronic problems of yesteryear: hyperinflation, housing and economic crises, and the world’s highest refugee burden. How will the country identify and bury (at least) 100,000 dead or feed and house an estimated 3 million extra people made newly homeless — and, on top of all this, hold its most contested presidential election in history in less than three months? (Simple answer: It probably won’t.)

Anger, fear and frustration were already reaching breaking point prior to Feb. 6. In addition to a humanitarian catastrophe of biblical proportions, this disaster has raised the specter of the country’s greatest lurking fear: What happens when the long-overdue Istanbul earthquake finally strikes? “Then it’s quite simple,” says Esra, a leather goods manufacturer. “There will be no more Turkey.”

Though hardly sanguine, others are less dramatic. “Even in the decimated heart of Antakya, locals were bringing us coffee each morning and coming to chat,” says one aid worker. “I was astounded at how upbeat and outgoing people were, given the circumstances.” One tries to imagine civilians sipping coffee and trading pleasantries in Berlin in 1945, Managua in 1972 or Port-au-Prince in 2010. If any country on earth can survive the existential odds it’s currently up against, it’s Turkey. But it needs all the help it can get in the meantime.

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