Antakya, Turkey, Struggles to Recover From Earthquake


The businessman fondly recalled his bakery and cafe in the ancient Turkish city of Antakya, where his staff made bread, cakes and cookies and locals gathered for breakfast, coffee and ice cream.

It vanished in February, lost when the two powerful earthquakes that struck southern Turkey heavily damaged the building that housed it and left most of the neighborhood uninhabitable.

Seven months later, the business is back, but greatly reduced. In a cramped, shipping-container-shaped box plopped in a dusty spot next to a highway, the baker, Caner Aris, and two colleagues now prepare a small selection of goods and welcome guests at a rickety table out front. They plan to remain here, Mr. Aris said, until some part of their hometown shows enough life to support a larger patisserie.

“If there is a developing neighborhood and people start settling, we will open there,” he said. “We aren’t thinking about leaving the city.”

After the earthquakes on Feb. 8, which killed more than 50,000 people in southern Turkey and damaged hundreds of thousands of buildings across 11 provinces, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to swiftly rebuild the afflicted areas.

In the months since, construction has officially begun at a number of sites. But during a recent visit to Antakya, historically known as Antioch and now the hardest-hit urban area, indications of significant reconstruction were nearly nonexistent. Instead, the damaged city was still being dismantled, leaving the residents who remain facing an uncertain future.

Across the city, abandoned apartment towers with missing walls line roads. Mechanical excavators hack at damaged buildings, reducing them to rubble to be hauled away and sending up thick dust clouds that hang over the city and clog people’s lungs. Other neighborhoods are entirely gone, save for piles of debris where scavengers hunt for scrap.

“We are living in dust, we are dying in dust,” said Mehmet Icer, 48, an unemployed bus driver sitting outside his modest house while his wife fried eggplants over a wood fire.

The quake had destroyed every other building in his immediate area, which was now an expanse of rubble. As the sun set, the darkness was pierced by distant lights in only a handful of apartments because everything else had been abandoned.

Much about life in the city feels temporary. Families sleep in tents outside their damaged homes. Huge numbers live in drab, prefab metal structures resembling shipping containers packed together in sprawling one-story box cities, where the government provides electricity and water. Around them, shops have sprung up in yet more of the boxes lined up like train cars along the main roads. Inside them, merchants eke out a living offering everything from haircuts to driving lessons to shoes.

One shop sells pet supplies. Its owner, Selman Anlar, said the quake had wrecked his home and his pet shop, so his family was sleeping in a tent. He now sells mostly birds, he said, a cheap way for families who have lost everything to add beauty to their lives.

“In the face of stress, birds are the best option,” Mr. Anlar said.

Such ephemeral accommodations are a drastic change for Antakya, a city with thousands of years of history, where intermixed churches and mosques recalled an ecumenical past, shoppers bought local sweets and cheeses in an arched bazaar and flowering bougainvillea climbed the walls of stone houses. In dozens of interviews, residents lamented the loss of their city and expressed hope that whatever replaced it would somehow preserve its spirit.

“We will never have the same soul we had before the earthquake — we should be realistic,” said Ayhan Kara, the founder of an association aimed at giving locals a say in the city’s reconstruction. “Many things will change, but we are insisting that this city keep its soul.”

The slow pace of recovery from the earthquakes in Turkey, which has a stable government and one of the world’s 20 largest economies, offers a grim prognosis for other places recently struck by large disasters. In Morocco, the mountain communities hardest hit by an earthquake that killed thousands of people have long been neglected by the central government. In Libya, political chaos and corruption both contributed to and hampered the aid response after heavy rains caused the collapse of two aging dams, sending a deadly torrent of water through the city of Derna.

Mr. Erdogan has announced grand plans for the earthquake zone, but progress is slow. The government has promised to build 850,000 new units in the afflicted provinces, for both residences and businesses, though construction on only about one-quarter of them has begun, the Urban and Environment Ministry said.

Across the affected provinces, about 1.9 million people remain displaced; 1.3 million of them are receiving government aid to rent elsewhere; and more than 500,000 are living in 330 container cities, the ministry said.

The government has set up programs to assist people who lost their homes, including grants and low-cost financing to help them rebuild. But many quake victims said they did not understand the process, or that the disaster had left them too destitute to take advantage of the government’s help.

“It depends on money, and we don’t have any money,” said Eylem Dahal, 42, sitting outside the prefab container that her family of four now calls home.

Their house had collapsed, she said, displacing the family, destroying their upholstery workshop and rendering them jobless. The shelter they live in now feels cramped, but she said at least the family did not fear it would collapse if another earthquake struck.

The scale of the destruction in Hatay Province, where Antakya is the regional capital and largest city, has slowed recovery efforts. The Turkish government has planned to build 254,000 new units in Hatay, but damaged buildings and mountains of rubble must be removed first.

In an interview, the mayor of Hatay, Lutfu Savas, said 38,000 buildings in the province had been scheduled for demolition, but only half had been removed so far.

Other aspects of life reveal daily struggles in a broken city.

Factory owners had difficulty finding workers because so many had fled elsewhere in Turkey. The quakes damaged many schools, leaving displaced families scrambling to enroll their children near where they had settled.

On what was to be the first day of school last month, parents and children streamed into a new prefab structure near a container camp in Defne, a hard-hit district next to Antakya. The space around the all-white building had no grass, no trees and no signs to make it feel like a school. About 800 children had already enrolled, administrators said. Most lived in container shelters nearby, as did many of the teachers.

Hulya Karadas, a mother of three, said that her children’s school had survived the quake but that she could not afford the bus to send them there. So she enrolled them in the prefab school, even though it was hot and lacked computers and places for the children to play.

“Here they just play in the street,” she said.

Conditions are even worse for the many Syrian refugees in Antakya, who were generally poorer before the quakes and struggle to get government aid.

About 250 Syrian families had settled in makeshift tents scattered in an olive grove next to their former neighborhood, which was razed after sustaining heavy damage.

“When it rains, we get flooded inside,” said Ayman Omar, 48, whose family of eight lives in the camp.

The government provided electricity and water and aid groups had built latrines, but residents had to deal with snakes, rats and bugs, Mr. Omar said. He had not enrolled his children in school and did not know if the family was eligible to move to a container city.

“If they could move us to containers, it would be cramped, but cleaner than this,” he said.

Various plans for the future of Antakya and its historic sites are underway, but one solution is already rising in Gulderen, a hillside village nine miles to the north.

Gulderen has become a sprawling construction site, with towering cranes lifting supplies and workers pouring concrete to build 122 new towers containing 2,300 apartments.

Engineers at the site said the development was on solid ground away from the fault line that runs through southeastern Turkey, and that the buildings under construction would be quake-resistant. They expected many people from Antakya to move in, adding that supermarkets, clinics, cafes and parks would be added later.

Beyza Sepin, an interior architect on the project, said life in such a complex would be different from what locals were used to, but suggested that conditions were so hard since the quake that people would adjust.

“People miss the environment of a home,” she said. “I am sure the locals will bring the spirit of Hatay here.”

Safak Timur contributed reporting.


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