Rescuers in Antakya: A race against time

Rescuers in Antakya: A race against time

Foto: Yusuf Sayman / DER SPIEGEL

"Where Is the Government?" The Earthquake in Turkey and the Question of Guilt

After Monday's devastating natural disaster, people in Turkey are living in tents and the mayor of one city is running his office out of a van. Hundreds of thousands of people are just trying to cope. Meanwhile, President Erdoğan is facing critical questions as a result of the massive crisis.
By Şebnem Arsu und Maximilian Popp in Hatay, Turkey

What can help now? A miracle? God?

Sevtap Köse Ergün is standing in front of a mountain of rubble and shards, her eyes widened in horror. She raises her hands to the sky. "Do something!” she yells. "Why isn't anyone doing anything?"


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 7/2023 (February 10th, 2023) of DER SPIEGEL.

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Ergün, 41, is wearing a hoodie and sweatpants, her sneakers encrusted with mud. Like so many people in Antakya, in southern Turkey, an earthquake shortly before 4 a.m. on Monday jolted her out of her sleep. Ergün lives outside the city with her husband and their two children, and their house is still standing. But immediately after the first tremor, she rushed to her parent’s apartment block in the city center - and when she arrived, there wasn’t much left of the building. Her parents, she says, lie buried under the rubble, as do her aunt and uncle and several cousins. Half her family lived in the building.

Ergün's cousin Nilgün Turunç was able to escape from the wreckage. The jolt woke her up, she says, and the walls were swaying. She says a wardrobe fell on her and the next thing she remembers is lying on the ground with concrete piled above her. She was able to escape through a gap in the rubble.

Ergün and Turunç say that they, along with other residents, spent the entire night digging with their bare hands on the search for their relatives, exposed to the wet and cold. They say an entire day went by before helpers from the Turkish disaster control authority AFAD arrived.

Victims of the earthquake in Antakya: "Why isn't anyone doing anything?"

Victims of the earthquake in Antakya: "Why isn't anyone doing anything?"

Foto: Yusuf Sayman / DER SPIEGEL
Foto: Yusuf Sayman / DER SPIEGEL

It’s now Tuesday, and Turunç's two sons are still beneath the pile of rubble, some 36 hours after the quake. Turunç persuades the AFAD rescuers to continue looking for them, insisting that she has heard another sound. Sometimes earthquake victims are recovered even days later, she says. As she speaks, helpers are hoisting a body into a van. Tears well up in Turunç’s eyes. "What did we do to deserve this?” she asks.

The Scale of the Disaster

These are what the days look like following the earthquake in southern Turkey and northern Syria earlier this week, arguably the most severe in the region in the past 100 years. The earthquake’s 7.8 magnitude was so strong that the tremors could be felt as far away as Egypt and Cyprus. Several dozen aftershocks followed. It took a while last week for the true dimensions of the natural disaster to become visible.

According to the authorities, the disaster has killed at least 22,000 people in Turkey and Syria, along with tens of thousands injured. Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their homes, with figures having to be revised upwards almost by the hour. No one can say how many more victims are still under the rubble. It could end up being tens of thousands of dead.

The people of Turkey are still in mourning. But the questions for the country's political leaders are growing louder with each passing day. Why did it take so long for help to reach cities like Antakya? Was the destruction inevitable, or could deaths have been prevented if buildings had been constructed more sturdily? Did the government fail to heed the warnings from experts?

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan insists that his government is doing everything it can to save people. He says he has deployed search and rescue teams with more than 50,000 personnel. Erdoğan also imposed a state of emergency in 10 provinces in southern Turkey, making protests more difficult. But he won’t be able to stop the blame debate.

"If anyone is primarily responsible, it is Erdoğan."

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the political opposition

Elections are expected to be held in Turkey in three months. And Erdoğan is under pressure as never before in his soon-to-be 20-year tenure as prime minister and president. The latest polls have his government and the opposition performing at roughly the same level, but now, the disaster and Erdoğan’s handling of it are likely to become the defining issue of the election campaign. Opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu already attacked the president head-on on Wednesday. "If anyone is primarily responsible, it is Erdoğan,” he said.

Antakya, in Hatay province, looks like nothing so much as a war zone. There are bodies lying on the side of the road, covered with tarps and blankets, and there is apparently a lack of emergency personnel and vehicles to remove them. People with bloodied faces can be seen staggering through the streets. One woman bends over her dying husband, who is lying on the ground and only gasps.

Mayor Lütfü Savaş, a Social Democrat like Kılıçdaroğlu, has moved his office to a van because City Hall was also badly damaged in the quake. His phone rings constantly, with residents asking for support, and volunteers unloading relief supplies. More than 2,000 homes have been destroyed in Antakya, Savaş says, and nearly one-third of local responders are either dead, injured or have to care for their own families. Savaş himself has lost relatives and co-workers. "What Antakya is experiencing is apocalyptic,” he says.

Antakya Mayor Lütfü Savaş is running his office out of a van because the earthquake left City Hall heavily damaged.

Antakya Mayor Lütfü Savaş is running his office out of a van because the earthquake left City Hall heavily damaged.

Foto: Yusuf Sayman / DER SPIEGEL

At the same time, there are also constant moments of unexpected joy. On Wednesday, rescuers pulled a four-month old baby alive out of the rubble after 58 hours.

Meryem Abacı, 52, is waiting with her son outside a food distribution point, with the earthquake having completely destroyed their home. Her husband lives in the United States, and Meryem is on her own. For now, she and her son are staying in one of the tends AFAD has set up in the city park. "I don’t know where to go,” she says.

“I can’t tell you how many times we’ve written to the ministries, mostly with no response."

Antakya Mayor Lütfü Savaş

Like Abacı, many in southeastern Turkey feel abandoned by the state. "Why are there so few helpers here?” asks a man on the street in Antakya? "Where is the government?”

The horrific damage isn't just limited to Antakya – a total of 10 provinces in southern Turkey are affected, an area as large as Germany. In İskenderun, a fire broke out in the container port. In Gaziantep, the city’s centuries-old Byzantine fortress was partially destroyed. In Malatya, the quake caused the roof of an airport terminal to collapse.

The earthquake sparked a fire in the Port of İskenderun.

The earthquake sparked a fire in the Port of İskenderun.

Foto: Yusuf Sayman / DER SPIEGEL

The scale of the devastation is so vast that AFAD disaster relief workers are finding it difficult to focus on just one scene. Hatice Aydoğan, 32, a team leader with AFAD from Istanbul, stands on the side of the road in Antakya on Monday evening, trying to somehow make her way to the center. AFAD’s own headquarters collapsed in the quake. Aydoğan doesn’t know how to track down her colleagues. "We have been unable to connect with teams from other cities because there’s no coordination,” she laments.

AFAD had actually enjoyed a good reputation among many Turks up until now. But the agency’s budget was cut to about about 100 million euros over the past two years, while during the same period, the budget of the religious authority Diyanet almost tripled to the equivalent of 1.7 billion euros.

Inadequate Precautions

That’s not the only decision made by Erdoğan’s government that is now coming back to haunt it. Huseyin Alan heads the Chamber of Geophysical Engineers of Turkey, and he and his colleagues sent an extensive study to policymakers in 2021 predicting that many cities in the region were at risk of earthquakes, including in Antakya, due to fault lines in the area. But they claim that both the presidential administration in Ankara and the local administrations ignored the results. "We didn't even receive acknowledgement of receipt,” Alan says.

In 1999, a devastating earthquake near İzmit and Gölcük, on the Sea of Marmara, killed more than 17,000 people. When Erdoğan rose to power some three and a half years later, he promised reforms. In fact, though, much remained the same when it came to disaster prevention. The opposition claims that a so-called earthquake tax introduced after 1999 was partially misappropriated.

Speaking to those affected, Erdoğan portrayed Monday’s quake as a stroke of fate, a tragedy against which man is ultimately powerless. In fact, however, experts such as Hüseyin Alan are convinced that the state could have limited the destruction by taking better precautions.

Alan points to Japan, a country also regularly hit by earthquakes, but which suffers far fewer fatalities. Unlike Turkey, Japan has a disaster management authority that emphasizes prevention and not just emergency response. Most importantly, architects and engineers in the country are required to adopt earthquake resistant methods when building.

Experts have criticized the fact that construction companies in Turkey have been flouting regulations for years without any consequences. They use inferior materials and shun more costly steel, which would have provided the buildings with better support. The ground, they claim, often isn't tested for suitability prior to construction.

The eight-story apartment building in Antakya where Ergün's family lived, was built just seven years ago, and Ergün says that when her parents moved in, the construction company in charge assured them that the building could withstand an earthquake. She doesn’t know if the building was ever inspected. In Turkey, the construction companies pay the inspectors. This week, that seven-year-old building collapsed like a house of cards.

The government in Ankara surely knew of the complaints lodged against the construction industry. Opposition parties, after all, have repeatedly raised them in parliament. But like many other Turkish politicians, Erdoğan is reluctant to take on the powerful industry, particularly since it fueled the economic boom in his first years in office with gigantic infrastructure projects. New roads, bridges and hospitals were built all across the country.

In Antakya, bodies are lying in the streets, where they are temporarily covered with blankets and tarps.

In Antakya, bodies are lying in the streets, where they are temporarily covered with blankets and tarps.

Foto: Yusuf Sayman / DER SPIEGEL
Foto: Yusuf Sayman / DER SPIEGEL

Before the 2018 presidential election, Erdoğan also retroactively approved structures that had been built without appropriate authorization. It was a move that didn't just please supporters of Erdoğan’s AKP party, it was also welcomed by homeowners who voted for other parties. The head of the Turkish Chamber of Engineers at the time, Cemal Gökce, criticized that the amnesty rule could turn Turkish cities into "graveyards" in the event of an earthquake.

Last autumn, the AKP and its government coalition partner, the MHP, rejected a motion by the opposition to inspect buildings for their earthquake preparedness. Only two weeks ago, Mayor Savaş warned on Turkish television that his city was not prepared for an earthquake. "I can’t tell you how many times we’ve written to the ministries, mostly with no response.”

Erdoğan Visits the Disaster Region

Erdoğan seems to suspect that his failures could present a danger for him in the upcoming presidential election. After leaving communications largely to his ministers on the day of the earthquake, he traveled to the disaster area himself on Wednesday, to Kahramanmaraş and Hatay. He shook hands and patted people on their cheeks, trying to dispel the impression that the government wasn’t responding decisively enough to the disaster.

Turkish President Erdoğan during his visit to the earthquake region on Wednesday: Turkey has faced one crisis after the other for years now.

Turkish President Erdoğan during his visit to the earthquake region on Wednesday: Turkey has faced one crisis after the other for years now.


Erdoğan promised to rebuild the destroyed cities and towns within just 12 months. But many people have been left wondering how, exactly, he intends to do so. Years of economic crisis have resulted in a country that is heavily in debt. Inflation is officially at more than 60 percent, and the lira is at an historic low, with an exchange rate of 20 lira to the euro. Now, billions of dollars worth of damage have to be repaired, and new homes must be created within a short time for hundreds of thousands of people without shelter.

In the past, society has usually moved closer together after tragedies. This time, though, it seems that tensions are more likely to intensify. Southern Turkey is home to more civil war refugees from Syria than any other region in the world, and there could now be struggles over the allocations of assistance. A Syrian living in Gaziantep reported how racist hostilities toward him after the earthquake have been worse than ever before. "I fear for my life,” he says. A report is also making the rounds on social media that Syrians have been pushed out of refugee camps to make room for earthquake victims.

Throughout his career, Erdoğan has made a habit of emerging stronger from virtually every test. But in Turkey, crisis has followed crisis for years – the civil war in the neighboring country and the accompanying refugee movements, terrorist attacks, economic decline – and now an historically destructive natural disaster. A growing number of Turks have begun wondering whether Erdoğan is still the right man to lead the country into the future.

Erdoğan himself forbids criticism of his government. "At a time like this, I can’t bear to see people campaigning negatively for political gain,” he said during his visit to Hatay.

Turkish authorities say they have identified more than 200 social media profiles with "provocative posts” about the earthquake and that 18 people have been taken into custody as a result. The authorities appear also to have temporarily blocked Twitter, even though the platform served as a platform for quake victims to send out calls for help.

Back in 1999, the earthquake in the area surrounding İzmit exacerbated the crisis in the country and was one of the reasons the government failed three years later. Erdoğan must face the possibility that history is repeating itself.

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