'When will we return?' Turkey's earthquake survivors still suffer from cabin fever

The National revisits earthquake survivors living in container cities in Antakya

Displaced in Turkish container cities face uncertain future

Displaced in Turkish container cities face uncertain future
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For the past half hour, Dua Shanaa, 33, has maintained her cheerful demeanour. She is sitting in her cabin in Antakya, to where she and her husband moved a couple of months ago after surviving the terrible earthquake that hit Turkey on February 6 last year.

She shares her story of destruction, displacement and an endless wait with a determined smile and a light-hearted voice.

But her calm tone changes when she starts to talk about the future – she has no idea when her family will be able to move back home.

“The crucial question is: how long are we going to stay here? When will we return to our houses? There is no answer,” Ms Shanaa says, tears filling her eyes.

Displaced in Turkish container cities face uncertain future

Displaced in Turkish container cities face uncertain future

She is among the 700,000 people living in one of the more than 400 container camps in Turkish regions affected by the earthquake, says Afad, Turkey's Emergency Management Authority.

"My neighbours here often cry. They say they want to go home but I’ve never cried in front of anyone ... I must be strong for my close ones," she tells The National. "I tell them, we need to be patient and soon enough we will rebuild and it will be better than before.”

These sprawling new neighbourhoods of makeshift container cabins, resembling children's playing blocks from afar, are now a common sight in the devastated city of Antakya, the capital of Hatay province in southern Turkey.

Many residents face an uncertain wait for a potential new home.

“There is no lack of food or water, what is unbearable is not knowing how long we are going to be here for,” Ms Shanaa says.

Immediately after the earthquake, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised to rebuild 319,000 homes within a year.

His pledge proved popular and helped him be re-elected in May but only 40,000 houses have been rebuilt so far, Afad says, although work on another 350,000 has started.

The delay has forced displaced people such as Ms Shanaa to forge a life in the camps, clouded by uncertainty over the future.

“I want to be someone strong, who never stops, despite disasters,” she says.

A year of struggle

The National interviewed Ms Shanaa last year, only a couple of days after the earthquake, while she was waiting in line for food distribution with her husband, Ende Altinel.

Originally from Aleppo in Syria, she met Mr Altinel, a 50-year-old cafe owner in Antakya in 2019, a year after she fled the civil war in her native country.

Despite the subsequent hardships, she never gives up. “Do you remember when I saw you last year? I wasn't crying, I wasn't afraid,” she recalls.

Back then, the earthquake, which killed more than 50,000 people – including members of Ms Shanaa's family – and displaced nearly three million in Turkey, was still very much fresh in people's minds.

A year later, from her room in the container camp, she says she is thankful despite the conditions.

"Alhamdulillah, we are fine, we are not cold here,” she says, referring to those forced to stay in makeshift tents while they waited for containers to become available. “We are thinking of them."

Ms Shanaa now has access to free electricity and running water – a significant improvement after months in a tent. “We’re comfortable now,” she says.

Reluctant to ask for more, she says the main problem is overcrowding. Entire families are crammed into one-room cabins, many of which were originally used as part of the Qatar World Cup in 2022.

The Gulf state sent 4,000 such cabins – built to house fans at the tournament – to earthquake survivors in Turkey and Syria.

Ms Shanaa and her husband used to receive boxes of supplies distributed by the government but these stopped a month ago.

“They move to a system of cash assistance via a card. But we didn’t qualify for the financial aid,” she explains.

The couple are struggling financially, as Mr Altinel's livelihood was lost when his cafe was destroyed in the earthquake, as was their home in Antakya

Her husband also suffers from diabetes and needs monthly injections. His brothers are supporting his treatment, which can be costly.

For displaced people such as Ms Shanaa and Mr Altinel, the financial prospects are bleak. The Turkish economy was already reeling even before the devastating blow of the earthquake, which is estimated to have cost the country $103.6 billion, which is equal to about 10 per cent of national GDP.

An Afad representative said the recovery process has mainly been financed by a combination of the state and local donations.

But residents are struggling with limited work opportunities and high living costs.

“There is no work here, inflation has made everything expensive and we cannot afford new rent," says Ms Shanaa.

Contained in the camp

Ms Shanaa now spends most of her day confined within the grid of the container camp. The couple do not own a car and she only leaves the site to visit the supermarket a few metres from the main gate.

She longs for better days.

“It’s not about the house, as we were renting the place, or the belonging, but about the beautiful memories I have there, with the family and my neighbours,” she says.

But the camps are full of snapshots of joyful moments, reminiscent of a better life, children playing with their bikes and neighbours chatting around cups of coffee.

“I love my neighbours," she says. "We visit each other and I would selI my kidney for them."

Opposition voices

Despite the uncertainty, many still view Mr Erdogan as the best option to rebuild the region. “He is a strong man and that's what we need in this situation,” says Ms Shanaa.

The May election results in Turkey showed Mr Erdogan's Justice and Development Party dominating most of the quake-devastated regions, despite widespread anger at the government's initially delayed response to the disaster.

But there is mounting criticism of the reconstruction efforts in the opposition stronghold of Hatay, home to religious minorities, including Alawites and Arab-Orthodox Christians, who have long felt overlooked by the government in Ankara.

Mr Erdogan was touring Antakya at the weekend for the inauguration ceremony of about 7,000 houses built in Hatay ahead of the municipal elections next month.

“They weren't doing anything and today they're paving the road only to show off for the elections,” says one young resident of Antakya, pointing at the new road surface. “It wasn't there yesterday.”

The President also promised the delivery of 75,000 homes across all earthquake-stricken areas within two months.

In the meantime, Ms Shanaa and her neighbours' only option is to wait. “My biggest joy would be for everyone to return home,” she says.

Updated: February 06, 2024, 4:19 PM