Türkiye: One year after the earthquake

February 6 marks the first anniversary of the devastating earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria. The disaster marked a turning point for immigrants in Vienna: feelings of guilt, anger and powerlessness continue to permeate their daily lives a year later.

“In the first few hours and days, my parents and I constantly sat in front of the television, constantly staring at our cell phones, waiting for a sign of life from our relatives. Because we were so far away, we cried, lamented, angry, and felt powerless. “In our minds, we were all in Turkey. , not here,” recalls Ospen Onel, who lost a few relatives in the February 6 earthquake in Turkey: his cousin, his aunt and their families. The Vienna electorate and journalist grew up in Germany; his roots are in Haday, in southern Turkey near the Syrian border. More than the earthquake. Hade was one of the affected areas. Waiting and ignorance paralyzed Özben's entire family in both Turkey and Austria. Özben's aunt's body was recovered from the rubble only two weeks later, and her nine-year-old son only showed up at a collection point for survivors a few days later – difficult to track in the chaos at the site. was For those relatives living in Europe, the geographical distance and the simultaneous emotional closeness posed an additional challenge. Here, in Vienna, they were far from the disaster, but their families and their old home were affected.

It's not the old house anymore, it's all that's left.Özben Önal

The violent 7.8-magnitude earthquake killed more than 54,000 people, collapsed more than 500,000 buildings, and displaced more than three million people. A year later, temporary container camps are still the new home for many families, and reconstruction is progressing slowly. About 75,000 people of Turkish origin live in Vienna alone, 45,000 of whom have Turkish citizenship. Relatives of many Turks living here have been affected by the disaster in Turkey. Even people who immigrated to Austria many years ago had houses in Turkey where they grew up or where they spent their summers – these were razed to the ground in many areas. The natural disaster caused a turning point for many: their old home would never be the same again.

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“I'm so sorry,” you greet each other.

Alara Yilmaz felt “guilty, incredibly guilty.” A 21-year-old Viennese woman with roots in Iskenderun also lost some relatives in the earthquake. “Like everyone in Hade,” the student sums up. At the time of the earthquake, she was in Lyon on a semester abroad, so “in two ways, even further away from my family in Turkey and Vienna than she already was.” “I felt very guilty. I didn't understand how I could go to the Erasmus party when my grandparents in Iskenderun were too afraid to go back home, sleeping in the car for days. Each other with students of Arab or Turkish origin in Lyon. “We all went through more or less the same thing. we went They understood it better than my German or Austrian friends. My mother, who was in Vienna at the time, none of her work colleagues asked how she or her family were doing there, so you still feel alone. The process for earthquake victims – this means they can enter Germany with less bureaucracy and stay with their relatives who live there for up to three months. This visa relief does not exist in Austria, but BMI has promised “expedited review” of applications. However, in practice, this is often difficult: Alara's family has been trying to bring her grandmother to Austria for months – so far the visa has not worked out. Özben's cousin Nikar has yet to receive a response to a visa application he submitted in May.

Alara was last in Iskenderun in the summer. “In the past, before the earthquake, people regularly met each other there, visited relatives and friends, and arranged to have dinner together,” says Alara. Now you greet each other with “I'm so sorry.”

Ali Gedik, a social worker at the Volkshilfe Vienna, is originally from the city Başarşık in the province of Maraş in southeastern Turkey. He is of Kurdish origin and has lived in Austria since 1972 – he was barred from entering Turkey for nine years because of his criticism of Erdogan and the Turkish government in the past. Ali is angry. Anger at the Turkish government and the fact that in an earthquake-prone country like Turkey they “don't comply with proposed building laws”. In the disaster he lost his aunt, with whom he lived for many years as a child and whom the 62-year-old describes as a “surrogate mother” and many friends. His brother and sister still live in Turkey, and their homes were also destroyed. Ali's sister has been living in a container camp since the earthquake, and her brother has moved to Antalya, and she hasn't seen either of them in nine years.

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Garbage, corpses and dust

Last April, three months after the earthquake, Ospen returned to his parents' hometown of Antakya for the first time. The house where she had spent the summers of her childhood and youth was now a mere ruin, like everything around it – streets once full of life and bustle, with cafes, restaurants and shops, now only a ghost. town About 5,000 people were buried in the “Grave of the Nameless”, in some cases entire families were destroyed, and many bodies could not be identified. Antakya was destroyed in detail – using old cell phone photos and the help of Google Maps, the 27-year-old moved through the city and tried to visually reconstruct his memories.

Family members also helped salvage some furniture from damaged apartments. “Despite the masks, after a few hours our lungs and noses were already full of dust and we couldn't breathe. The dust is still hanging in the air everywhere – I wonder how people survive in container camps that haven't even lasted a few hours? Of course I'm in an incredibly privileged situation here, I You can get out again. But this feeling of not being there all the time is always with you.” Like many diaspora children, Özben and Hatay have countless memories from their childhood, a sense of security and home, a home that no longer exists in the form she knows.

Nepotism and corruption

Although no one can prevent a natural disaster, Turkish people complain that they could have reduced the damage and saved lives. What exactly does that mean? Turkey is a country at high risk of earthquakes. Experts criticize building safety regulations and warnings being ignored to save money.

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The accusations are primarily directed against Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's president since 2014, and his ruling party, the AKP. Soon after the earthquake, the government and state disaster management agency AFAD set up tent and container camps in the first phase. There is also financial assistance for reconstruction; Cases are examined individually. Depending on how serious the damage is to the respective house, the government provides money to the citizens to rebuild it. Ospen's parents have also applied for financial assistance to rebuild their destroyed home in Antakya; They are currently awaiting a response. According to an initial estimate, they will receive 500,000 Turkish lira (about 15,000 euros) from the state. Speaking of money: Turkey has had a so-called “earthquake tax” since 1999 – this tax money is intended to ensure that buildings are earthquake-resistant. However, on February 6, 2023, it became clear that the building regulations were partially adhered to on paper, but not in practice.

Many construction contracts go to AKP-affiliated companies. There has been talk of nepotism and corruption for years. In January 2024, the first major investigation began in Turkey into construction defects at the Hotel Grand Isias in Adiyaman, where 72 people died after it collapsed. Eleven defendants to answer. Despite all the allegations, Erdogan was re-elected as Turkey's president in May 2023 with a narrow majority of 52.2 percent, and is now serving his third term in office. Incidentally, 72 percent of Turkish citizens living in Austria voted for Erdogan in May.

This is completely incomprehensible to Ali, Alara and Özben. Between their anger at the government's irresponsibility, their grief for their dead relatives, and their erased memories, the divide between the two homelands has been growing stronger ever since, or, as Osban puts it: “This is not the old homeland, this . What's left of it.”

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