Turkey's traumatised earthquake survivors prefer tents to homes certified safe

Adana residents tell 'The National' they fear sleeping in buildings checked by engineers

Tent residents fear to return to their homes after Turkey earthquake

Tent residents fear to return to their homes after Turkey earthquake
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In the southern Turkish city of Adana, traumatised earthquake survivors are refusing to return to their apartments despite being told by government engineers that the structures are safe.

In a community space usually used for markets, 200 tents house those caught up in the February 6 earthquake, which has killed more than 46,000 in Turkey and Syria.

Serhat Guvel, 48, a father of two, is now resident in one of the 16-square-metre tents.

His family is divided over returning home to their undamaged apartment block. So far they have made only one three-hour visit, last Wednesday, to shower and gather belongings.

The trip was unsettling.

Mr Guvel said entering the flat felt like experiencing the earthquake all over again.

“Even though I am a calm person, when I went to the house and sat on the balcony, I felt that everything around me was shaking,” he said.

The night the 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit, one building near the Guvel family's apartment block collapsed.

A few hours later, the second 7.5-magnitude aftershock pancaked two other buildings facing theirs.

“We were right in the middle of it all. That’s why my wife and daughter won’t go home,” said Mr Guvel.

The Guvels and several close relatives, including some from the nearby town of Hatay, have taken refuge in what locals call a “tent city”. There are 17 of them scattered around Adana.

When The National visited, Mr Guvel and his sisters-in-law were playing with their young daughters in the nearby park in an effort to distract them.

The visit occurred before another earthquake of 6.4-magnitude hit the region on Monday night, killing at least eight more people in Turkey and Syria.

Psychologists said the continuous aftershocks are compounding people's fear and misery.

"Even if [the latest earthquake] wasn't as strong as on February 6, most of us are not OK," said Sergen Ant, a psychologist from Adana.

"We are heavily damaged psychologically," said Mr Ant, who has volunteered with the local Rotary Club to help affected people.

For many, staying in tents is the safest option, yet living conditions are difficult.

Mr Guvel said that his daughter stayed inside the tent without engaging with the rest of the family and dislikes the life in tents.

The tents have no electricity. People stay warm with open fires burning in steel drums in a region where temperatures drop below zero at night. Every day, they queue for food distributed by volunteers.

Mr Guvel’s daughter wants the family to move to a new house in Adana’s southern suburbs where there are fewer high-rise buildings, said her father, but he cannot afford it.

Psychologists have encouraged families to return home during the day for short periods of time for showers or meals. Many refuse to sleep at home because the earthquake happened during the night.

“We are planning to soon remove the tent city from this area. We aim to help people go back to their normal lives. And after that we are going to focus on helping them cope with trauma,” said Anil, a volunteer psychologist.

“Some children don’t want to go home because they heard screams under the rubble,” added Anil, who asked for his family name to not be used because he had not received government permission to speak to the media.

“We’re trying to make this environment as liveable as possible for kids, but we don’t want it to turn into a playground for them either. Otherwise, they will dissociate from their normal lives and never want to return,” he said.

A bustling city of close to 2 million people surrounded by the snowy Taurus mountains, Adana is located over 200km from the epicentre of the earthquake.

Locals say that it caused 20 buildings to collapse, killing hundreds.

Adana: A safe haven

Yet Adana continues to operate relatively normally, with busy roads, open shops and stable supplies of water and electricity.

This is why thousands of survivors from the region have flocked here. They come from cities a few hours’ drive away like Antakya, Kahramanmaras and Adiyaman, which all suffered extensive damage.

But most people living in Adana’s tent cities are locals like the Guvels. In many cases, their flats have been inspected by government engineers and declared safe.

“Our building is not heavily damaged. The columns are solid,” said Mr Guvel. “But my wife and daughter are psychologically devastated.”

The apparent randomness of the devastation has also compounded fear.

The National visited a neighbourhood where one of two identical 12-storey apartment blocks collapsed following. Standing just a few metres away, the other building remained upright, with little visible damage.

Whether this is an anomaly or the fallen building had alterations made after construction, the locals do not know. It is safer to stay away.

On the rubble, people have placed objects belonging to the deceased: shoes extracted from the debris, photos, medals and toys.

An engineer working the Adana branch of the Ministry of Environment and Urbanism said that social media has played an important role in stoking fear.

He said videos had circulated deriding the inspection work conducted by government engineers after the earthquake.

“People with bad intentions broadcast a few seconds of the videos showing engineers tapping walls with hammers to make it seem like that’s all they do,” said the engineer. “That creates fear.”

The engineer showed The National a video of colleagues checking the soundness of walls with hammers, sometimes breaking through layers of plaster.

Around 800 buildings that are still standing will be demolished because they are structurally unsafe.

The National is not using the engineer’s name because he had not received prior permission to speak to the media.

Criticism of the government is widespread in Turkey as reports emerge that many deaths could have been avoided if building regulations had been respected.

Displaced people like Mr Guvel know that they will eventually have to go home.

Locals expect the tents to be dismantled in the coming days. Those who have no home to return to will be moved to temporary housing, including university dormitories and containers.

“We need to trust the engineers’ assessments,” said Mr Guvel. “There are some people who are more in need of these tents than we are.”

Updated: February 21, 2023, 11:38 AM