In Istanbul, earthquake survivors rebuild shattered lives

At least three million people have been displaced following the earthquakes that hit southern Turkey and Syria last month, leaving many homeless or relying on family members.

Hacer Guven, 81 and her granddaughter Irem Mursaloglu in Istanbul (Ylenia Gostoli)
Hacer Guven, 81, and her granddaughter Irem Mursaloglu in Istanbul, after Hacer survived the earthquakes in Antakya [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]

Istanbul, Turkey – When the bed Hacer Guven, 81, was sleeping in plunged all the way from the fourth floor to the ground floor of her apartment building in Antakya, in Turkey’s southernmost province of Hatay, the impact of the February 6 earthquake was felt as far away as Istanbul, where some of her close relatives lived.

“We have this family chat, and everybody is on the group chat trying to get some news from someone [there],” recounts Irem Mursaloglu, Hacer’s 37-year-old granddaughter, about the events of a month ago, when Antakya was hit along with vast swathes of territory in Turkey and Syria by devastating earthquakes.

“They were saying there was no help, but we couldn’t believe, you want to believe there is some help,” Irem, who lives in Istanbul with her husband, mother and young children, says. “Then we started randomly calling people ourselves, asking for excavators, for cranes.”

Hacer remained in that bed of debris for three days, as rain seeped through the rubble, her back badly bruised, nestled between the collapsed ceiling and the wardrobe that diverted its fall, saving her life.

“When I saw that nobody was coming for me, I worried about my children and grandchildren, I was afraid something had happened to them,” Hacer says, sitting in a spacious living room at her granddaughter’s home in a leafy, historic neighbourhood of Istanbul. Her hands twist around a tissue, but her face tries to hide any sign of distress as she glances at the TV screen where news is playing in the background.

When the six-storey building where she lived with Selahattin – her husband of 65 years – collapsed, it killed him and 26 others, according to the family. She is one of only five survivors from the building.

Wearing a dressing gown, she looks considerably thinner than in the family pictures Irem shows of large family gatherings at the apartment.

“It’s where we all spent the most precious holidays, weekends, bayrams [festivals],” she continues. “This was the place where I spent my entire childhood,” Irem says, explaining that she grew up in a building just three minutes’ walk away.

“We saw that collapse into a pile of rubble, and now it was there, blocking the way.”

Search for the missing continues

On the third day in the afternoon, Hacer was pulled from the rubble, wrapped in a blanket and taken to a field hospital in her son’s car.

More than 51,000 people are now known to have died in the disaster across Turkey and Syria, but that number could rise as thousands remain missing.

“We feel lucky that we were able to find my grandfather and bury him properly,” says Irem, explaining her grandfather Selahattin, who was 91, was found on the fourth day and identifiable only by a ring he was wearing.

From the field hospital, Hacer was evacuated for treatment. But amid the chaos of those hours, the family did not know where she would be taken. They eventually found her several hours later at a hospital in Adana, a city in the region that suffered considerably less damage, after scouring every room to find her.

Some family members are still missing.

“My cousin, his wife, and their two-and-a-half-year-old daughter [are still missing],” Irem says. “We are going to hospitals one by one, checking the rooms, just like how we found [my grandmother]. Ankara, Izmir, Adana, Mersin,” she adds, listing cities in the region and further away where the wounded and survivors have been transferred.

“We also went to Kayseri,” Hacer interjects.

The rubble from the cousin’s building has now been removed after search teams dug two floors down without being able to find the bodies, which were possibly incinerated in a fire that broke out in the building.

“[My cousins] went to all the graveyards to show pictures,” Irem says.

“We cannot find them. We cannot reach their bodies.”

‘Nothing to go back to’

According to data collected by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), at least 2.7 million people have been displaced across the region – of these, about 1.1 million have sought shelter in other parts of the country, some in government-provided temporary accommodation facilities, including hotels and public buildings in cities like Antalya, Aydin and Mugla. The estimate is based on official governorate data, but thousands of people have moved using their own means to stay with family or a support network.

More than 160,000 buildings containing 520,000 apartments collapsed or were severely damaged, Turkish authorities have said.

As cities fill with people looking for safety, rent prices have increased rapidly, adding to an already dire housing crisis in the country, where rent prices had already more than doubled in the last year in some cities. Tent cities have been erected throughout the region, and the government has started building container homes, but many remain homeless.

“I was with my family and we were scared. We took my two dogs and we came by car,” said Ilker Cihan Biner, 39, who drove from Iskenderun in Hatay to Darica, a town in Kocaeli province, south of Istanbul, to stay with family members.

“It’s a bit overcrowded where we stay,” he says, adding that he is waiting for his home to be damage-assessed. “I want to go back, but I don’t know when.”

Hacer’s husband Salahettin used to run a jewellery shop in the historical centre of Antakya, an ancient city that used to be the capital of the Roman province of Syria. One of his sons had in later years taken over the business.

Old family photo of two parents and their four young children.
Hacer and her husband Salahettin had raised their children in Antakya, but many members of their family relocated to Istanbul, away from a city that is now devastated [Courtesy of Hacer Guven and family]

“My grandfather had built it from zero, it had a historical meaning for us,” Irem says. “But now everything is gone. [My uncle] had to pack all the jewellery that he could save before coming [to Istanbul].”

He and his family were among the lucky survivors to find a place in the northern district of Sariyer, considered to be one of the most earthquake-safe in the city, and now highly in demand. They plan on going back as soon as it is feasible.

“There is nothing to go back to now,” Irem says.

As for Hacer, she knows that most likely will not happen in her lifetime.

“I am happy to be here with my grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” she says stoically.

Source: Al Jazeera