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On Turkey's post-earthquake devastation and determination

Jerrold Kessel

By Jerrold Kessel
CNN Correspondent

August 27, 1999
Web posted at: 1:12 p.m. EDT (1712 GMT)

This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.

In this story:

Asking why

Promising answers

A spirit to persevere

GOLCUK, Turkey (CNN) -- Hunched over in the darkness, her hand supporting her kerchiefed head, the old lady peers intently at her relatives swarming like a colony of well- coordinated ants over the mountain of rubble that had once been their home.

An agonizing scene. But there's no time for tears as the faces follow intently the beam of their flashlights through the crags and crevices of the twisted girders and concrete blocks, ears attuned for even the faintest sound.

Just like in so many other once-proud streets of this busy Navy port town on the southern shores of the Sea of Marmara, the hope is fervent that perhaps, perhaps someone had yet survived.

That was the predominant image of the days immediately after the earthquake destroyed so much, and so many lives. Miraculously, some would say, some did still emerge alive from the ruins even after so many days.

Digging out in Golcuk  

Golcuk came to symbolize the physical and emotional destruction wrought during some 45 devastating seconds at 3:02 a.m. on August 17.

As hopes of extricating more survivors faded, there were traces of despair, of dismay, even of anger. Many Turks had the feeling that the trust they had in their state and their powerful Army to be there always in their hour of need had been misplaced.

The hurt showed when one man said, "I still can't understand why 'the Father' (as many Turks refer to their president, Suleiman Demirel) visited the Navy base, but didn't come here at all to identify with us in the nearby streets."

There has now been massive help, both from the Army and the government, in burying thousands of bodies in hastily created cemeteries, awesomely located on beautiful hillsides but terrifying in their magnitude, and in the creation of many well-appointed tent-camps all around the stricken district.

Asking why

But, alongside the urgent questions of how to handle the manifold practical problems created by the earthquake, philosophical questions have also been surfacing.

How, for instance, to explain the seeming randomness of the earthquake's trail of devastation. There is a reasonable -- or rather, a painfully unreasonable explanation -- why some areas suffered worse.

In the pretty seaside town of Yalova, the buildings of one entire neighborhood collapsed. It included numerous seven- story apartment blocks built during the last decade.

A little relief in Yalova  

The head of the building company that created the middle- class dream neighborhood admitted he'd mixed sea sand into the concrete. "I didn't know it was wrong," he maintained in his defense.

Such building practices were the cause of many other collapses.

But elsewhere, haunting questions reverberate -- why one street was unscathed, the very next street massively affected. Or, why one building was flattened into a pancake pile, its neighbor half-tilted like a shuffled pack of cards, and the very next building left perfectly upright as if scornful of nature's brutal force.

For the first few days, an enervating search for survivors, the wonder of it being that some could be brought out alive at all -- testament to the efforts of the dedicated rescue teams, the thousands of volunteers, both Turkish and from around the world.

But because so many hundreds of buildings had been hit, there were simply not enough rescue squads and heavy equipment to go around. Many people must have died a slow, lingering death simply because they were not reached in time.

Promising answers

Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit is acknowledging the failure of previous governments, and of his own, to ensure adherence to adequate building standards. He promises things will change.

He also admits the initial reaction of authorities, including the powerful military, was ineffective. "Communications were simply non-existent for a day-and-a-half," he said. "Few phones were working, and many roads and bridges were down."

Ecevit insists, however, that continued finger-pointing about inefficient and unfair handling of the tragedy is baseless. And, he gets a degree of backing for that defense from a U.N. disaster unit representative who said that given the scope of the disaster, "Even few very highly developed western countries would have managed."

This ongoing argument was perhaps best summed up by an Israeli brigadier-general who headed one of his country's emergency search and rescue squads that rushed to help.

"Things were chaotic, with no one really in control," he said. "But given the magnitude of the catastrophe, it's a wonder they were organized at all."

A spirit to persevere

Turkey has always been, like the massive bridge that traverses the Bosporus between Europe and Asia, a country at a crossroads trying to span civilizations.

The earthquake struck when Turkey was busily determined to lift itself to standards that will gain it acceptance -- economically, politically and socially -- in Europe.

Post-earthquake scenes in Ulasli  

Ecevit speaks bravely of his people pulling through this crisis, of their ability eventually to get the better of the catastrophe. But the Turkish media stress he has not merely to implement the promises he has made, he must restore the credibility of his government. Turks pointedly remember that promises of reconstruction and revival after previous, far less serious quakes in their earthquake-prone country were unfulfilled.

Still, one senses they can pull through, and certainly they will pull through, if the spirit of the village of Ulasli translates throughout the battered region.

Ulasli, not far from Golcuk, is a pretty seaside village of fewer than 3,000 souls. It lost 78 people in the earthquake, including five teen-agers who were playing guitar and chatting on the little promenade when a massive earthquake- induced wave swept them into the sea. Here, unlike elsewhere where thousands remain missing, everyone's been accounted for; still, that's one person in every 40 dead.

The sea was once their hope, their future, a livelihood for many in the village. In one mighty sweep, it became their enemy.

A short distance away from the new shoreline, 30 meters (33 yards) inland from where it used to be, an elderly man sits reading calmly, his back to the sea, incongruously upright in a large armchair, one of the few things he had managed to retrieve from his devastated apartment.

The people of Ulasli know they have to adapt to life after the earthquake.

"Our village wasn't always as pleasantly prosperous as you would have found it two weeks ago," says Mustafa, an engineer with a nearby electronics firm.

"But over the last half century we built it up through our own efforts. And now we're determined to build it up again, despite the tragedy. It may take one year or 20 or 50, but we shall do it!"

When I tell him our crew earnestly hope it will be just one year, not 50, Mustafa replies: "Look at the date on your watch and promise you'll come back in exactly a year from now to see how we've fared. I'll be waiting for you here, next to where that ruined building now stands. Here, in the square next to the sea."


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Turkish Republic Earthquake Relief Fund
Mercy International USA
Disaster Relief from
American Red Cross
Doctors Without Borders
International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies
World Relief
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Inc. Turkey Earthquake Relief

Survivor message site (in Turkish)
Turkish Daily News Online
USGS National Earthquake Information Center
Global Earthquake Response Center
Kandilli Observatory and Earthquake Research Institute

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