Earthquake Aftermath: Aid beyond reach of Turkey’s poorest

Fellows Spring 2000

By Laura Peterson

June 07, 2009

DUZCE, Turkey -- For the past six months, Hanje Ceslak's home has been the thin plastic sheets of a tent planted on a muddy field in the center of this town. Yet in her government's eyes, she isn't homeless.

Ceslak is among 100,000 of Turkey's poorest citizens who can't receive government housing because they didn't own the homes devastated by the earthquakes that ravaged Turkey last year. Today, most of them live in ramshackle "tent cities" devoid of bathrooms, social services or a regular supply of food.

Now even these tenuous homes may be razed to make way for permanent housing - housing that, ironically, her very poverty prevents her from owning a home.

HOME AWAY FROM HOME: A young earthquake survivor sits in the doorway of her temporary shelter. New plans to construct permanent housing on these lands could leave the poorest victims without a home.

"There's nothing like home left," Ceslak says. "It's not like what you see on television. There's no officials coming here to see our situation, no financial help…only dry food, sometimes some milk, and this tent."

More than 350,000 people lost their homes in the 7.4 earthquake that rent the town of Izmit last August and the 7.2 Duzce temblor that followed in November. The pair of quakes killed more than 18,000 people, injured more than 45,000 and left Turkey holding a bill for nearly $20 billion in damages.

The trauma caused by the earthquakes still suffuses the air of towns like Duzce, a midsize industrial center two hours east of Istanbul. On a recent afternoon, citizens stepped carefully among piles of broken concrete and iron girders on their way to visit merchants or lawyers who moved their demolished businesses into rows of mobile units.

Scattered throughout the town are clusters of tents where the homeless still live. Those established by the Turkish government or foreign relief organizations are recognizable by their rows of winter-proof rubber tents dotted with white satellite dishes and arranged around community centers that provide psychological counseling or child care.

Others are a mishmash of corrugated tin panels, plastic sheeting stretched over poles and flimsy tents handed out by foreign aid organizations after the quake. Here live more than 10,000 of Duzce's poorest citizens - people who, like Ceslak, cannot present leases, utility bills or other documents proving that they owned a damaged house, documents required by the government.

Now, these "cities" are slated for demolition to make way for government-built permanent housing. Though it cannot evict residents from the privately-owned land, the government has threatened to force them out by cutting off electricity and water.

"It's too painful, and the worst thing is we can't do anything about it," said Ceslak, whose family shared a rented apartment with two other families before the quakes to save money. "If it was just me I'd be angry, but there are thousands of people in the same situation."

The Turkish government's initial aid program gave citizens a choice of a $150 monthly rent subsidy, shelter in a prefabricated house or a heavy-duty tent. Now it plans to build 7,000 permanent houses throughout the earthquake zone, which previous homeowners can either apply for by lottery or accept an $8,000 lump sum to rebuild their homes themselves. Yet according to a survey conducted by the Turkish Human Settlements Association, homeowners make up only two percent of the tent population.

Government spokesmen claim that the majority of citizens living in tent cities are actually owners of moderately-damaged homes who are either afraid to return in the event of another earthquake or siphoning off the aid provided by private organizations such as the Turkish Society of the Red Crescent.

"We don't give them much aid because we want them to either go home or to the large government-owned tent cities." said Ali Uslanaz, director of the Duzce Crisis Center, which oversees the government housing program.

Aid workers refute this, saying citizens like Rahmi Bostanu who owned moderately damaged homes have gradually moved back as foreign aid tapered off. Bostanu moved his family to a backyard shack after the November quake even though government architects said his house was not severely damaged. They now use the kitchen in the lower level of the house, but sleep outside because "you can't run outside if you're sleeping," Bostanu says. "I must be responsible for my children." Bostanu is considering moving back in the house next month, after an unusual alignment of planets passes which local superstition says will trigger another quake.

Even scientists agree that's not far behind. Turkey is expected to suffer up to four more serious earthquakes in the next 30 years on the North Anatolian Fault, which runs under the Sea of Marmara about 10 kilometers off Istanbul's coastline. Judging by the outrage generated by the government's response to the last earthquakes, it may be more than houses that crumble if the government continues to neglect its citizens' needs.

"This isn't just an issue of rich and poor, it's an issue of whether citizens will have any input into how and where they will live," said Hayim Beraha of the Human Settlements Association, a Turkish aid organization. "We're trying to tell the government that it's only right to provide housing to everyone."