Turkey’s Cataclysmic 1999 Earthquake Foretold a Future Catastrophe

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A man stands in front of the rubble, not crying exactly, but wailing, sometimes roaring like a wounded animal, at one point jumping into the air and slamming his feet down in an act of raw emotion. He holds a bright scarlet piece of clothing and presses it against his face, inhaling the scent, swaying back and forth on his feet as though dancing. As others stand nearby in helpless silence, the man sifts desperately through the debris, collecting anything that still carries their smell, scooping up a tiny jacket, screaming incoherent words at the jagged shards on the ground. He has lost his daughter, son-in-law and grandson.

“I keep repeating to myself, ‘the horror, the horror, the horror,’” wrote the artist Anil Olcan, finding the word insufficient to describe what he had witnessed after visiting Hatay, the worst-hit area in the 10-city-wide zone of devastation in southern Turkey. “Is there a word in Turkish that alludes to the intertwining of panic, chaos, fear of death and the struggle to hold on to life?”

This inexpressible blight of trauma casting its shadow over all of Turkish society in the wake of the republic’s deadliest-ever earthquake nearly two months ago has long roots. When I first lived in Istanbul in 2006 as an English teacher, the school warned me to never broach certain topics with my students. This included the usual forbidden taboos, such as the Armenian genocide and the Kurdish conflict, but also earthquakes.

“Don’t even say the word,” a colleague said to me. To do so touched the still-raw wound of being abandoned by the state when the need was most dire and reinstilled the fear of another quake.

Turkey, a country cursed by geology, is one of the most earthquake-prone regions on the planet. The ground beneath your feet can shake in virtually any part of the country because, as the media keeps repeating, Turkey is a “deprem ulkesi,” an “earthquake country.” It balances precariously on the Anatolian tectonic plate that is squeezed and twisted counterclockwise by the Eurasian, African and Arabian plates, creating not one but two long, highly active fault lines, encompassing the entire north of the country as well as much of the south and east. There have been at least a dozen major earthquakes, causing over 1,000 deaths, in the past century in Turkey, but even before the recent quakes in the south, there was one in particular that left an enormous collective trauma on the country, shaking society’s faith in the state and planting the roots of Turkish civil society.

It unfolded one hot and muggy night, when the sea was calm and the stars bright. It was Aug. 17, 1999, at precisely 3:02 a.m., residents recalled when I interviewed them, that their breezy bayside town of Değirmendere was jolted awake to the sound of “a roar,” or “a strong wind,” depending on whom you ask. İrem Aydemir, who was 7 years old then, said it sounded “more like a beehive.” Before she knew what was happening, her mom had scooped her up from the bed in her aunt’s place where they were staying and raced out onto the street with her grandma and cousins. İrem looked around and realized that nothing was as it should be. Trees were in the middle of the sea. Some of the buildings were missing. Neighbors were standing outside in dead silence, women draped in tablecloths and curtains to cover themselves. Elsewhere in her town, residents lurched awake to find their homes full of seawater with mussels and fish flopping around. At first, some thought war had broken out, others that a meteorite had struck and still others that the apocalypse had been visited upon them.

Just 50 miles southeast of Istanbul, Değirmendere is known for its hazelnut festival and international arts events, its sweet cherries, a seaside park with giant plane trees and a waterfront with seafood restaurants, ice cream shops and tea houses. Nestled in Izmit Bay in Kocaeli, a heavily populated industrial province between the Sea of Marmara in the south and the Black Sea to the north, Değirmendere is a military town, as nearby Gölcük hosts Turkey’s largest naval base, where 24,000 people live and work. It is thus secular and considered modern, the kind of place where women can walk around in shorts without getting harassed and young people drinking beer flirt and gaze into the chilly Marmara. As in other coastal regions in Turkey, the “sahil” (seaside) is something almost sacred, the basis of an entire way of life, and İrem spent most of her childhood near it.

The epicenter of the earthquake — a devastating 7.4 magnitude tremor that roiled Kocaeli for 45 seconds, releasing the equivalent of 236 Hiroshima blasts and creating a tsunami as high as 8 feet deluging more than 100 yards inland — was just a few miles away. So much time had passed since the last deadly earthquake convulsed the region in 1894 that many people either didn’t know or had seldom pondered the fact that they had built their lives directly on top of one of the most active fault lines on Earth.

An immense inferno blazed at Turkey’s largest oil refinery just across the bay, spewing dark smoke almost 200 feet into the air. Minarets snapped like matchsticks. Buildings crumbled like sandcastles, for indeed they were made from concrete mixed with sand from the beach. Those who emerged from their homes in their pajamas, covered in cement dust, staggering about in a daze, will forevermore be known as “depremzede” — “earthquake victims.”

In nearby Izmit, at the end of the bay, 13-year-old Bahar Topçu, a typical middle-class teenager, was spending the night at her aunt and uncle’s apartment. She studied ballet and piano, took swimming lessons in the local pool, spent hours sipping tea and exchanging stories with her friends, and dreamed of moving to Istanbul and studying international relations. She loved how common it was to run into people you knew in the center of the small city, and everyone had their go-to baker, butcher and greengrocer with whom they exchanged the daily gossip.

Bahar struggled to stay upright as the ground shook for what felt like an eternity. She couldn’t straighten her legs. Her impulse was to run away, to escape somehow, but when the ground itself is shaking there’s nowhere to go. Bahar’s older cousin dashed into her room and wrenched her into the doorway where they clutched onto each other for dear life.

Finally it stopped, and they descended the stairs with her aunt and uncle and congregated with neighbors in a children’s park. Miraculously, this neighborhood was built on hard ground, and none of the buildings was heavily damaged. With the electricity out, Bahar had never seen Izmit enveloped by such total darkness, and the salty sea seemed present in the air in a way she had never felt before. Everyone stood there in stunned silence.

“Should I cry? Should I run? What should I do?” Bahar thought to herself, worried about her parents at home in another neighborhood. But soon they arrived by car, shouting her name, overjoyed to find her safe and sound. They drove away, passing through neighborhoods that looked starkly different from their own. Their headlights illuminated the rubble of ghostly buildings crumbled along silent, empty streets. At that moment, the family could not fathom where all the people were.

Their minds were fixated on an urgent task — finding a pay phone to call Bahar’s sister Pinar, who was studying in France, to tell her they were OK before she woke up and saw the news. At last they located one, and her mom called Pinar’s facility, only to remember that she didn’t speak a word of French. “Pinar’s momma, Turkey,” she said, and the person at the other end responded enthusiastically in a long stream of French. “Mama — bonne. Papa — bon,” (“Mama — good. Papa — good”) was all she could manage, a story they would recount many times in the future.

Back in Değirmendere, people sat on the ground and listened to news reports on the radio that played through the open doors of cars. İrem’s dad, who was at their home in another neighborhood, set out to reach them but had a hard time getting through because everyone stopped him, begging for help to dig out their loved ones. Later, he would work for weeks in the rubble, digging out the body of his wife’s cousin, who could only be identified by her wedding ring. The dead piled up so quickly that they were forced to use the local skating rink in Izmit as a makeshift morgue.

İrem’s uncle came directly from working a night shift in a glass factory and met them before going home to his pregnant wife. But before he left, the radio announced that his neighborhood had been destroyed, and he blacked out from shock and despair. They revived him with kolonya, the perfume ubiquitous in Turkey; he later discovered that his wife and future son had slept over at her mom’s place in a different neighborhood and survived.

Meanwhile, in Istanbul, 21-year-old university student Çağlar Akgüngör rushed to join the relief effort. Unlike almost everyone scrambling to help, he was trained and ready. Three years earlier, he had joined an organization called AKUT, which had been founded by one of the trainers at his university mountaineering club. AKUT was a pioneering search-and-rescue group established to help endangered rock climbers, cave divers and victims of natural disasters. After a training seminar at Boğaziçi University’s Kandilli Observatory and Earthquake Research Institute, they realized that Istanbul was built on a major earthquake zone and that Turkey had very little capacity for dealing with such a disaster. When municipalities demolished buildings, they let AKUT members practice working on the ruins.

Akgüngör met his AKUT colleagues in Avcilar, a coastal district on Istanbul’s European side where, despite being 55 miles from the epicenter, the quake pulverized over 60 shoddy buildings constructed on soft, sandy soil. Since few people owned cellphones and service was intermittent, they communicated by radio, soon learning that the damage in Kocaeli was far worse, and immediately headed to Gölcük.

Nothing could have prepared Akgüngör for the scenes of mayhem that met him there. Some buildings looked as though they had been swallowed into quicksand, as the temblor had liquefied parts of the ground. Others lay completely intact but on their sides. Many buildings had been opened up like dollhouses, exposing frozen scenes of domestic life inside. In the worst areas, several buildings were blended together into a single mass of concrete, metal, furniture, kitchen appliances, clothing and curtains, all of it covered in dust. Everyone was eager to help, but they lacked training, coordination and equipment. As countless people begged his team to rescue their loved ones, Akgüngör felt powerless, and it was hard to know where to start. AKUT had no more than 50 members and 2,000 volunteers, and lacked heavy or specialized equipment.

Desperate residents tried to remove giant chunks of concrete with their bare hands. The naval base had been hit hard, and sailors were busy working on their collapsed headquarters, digging out hundreds of buried officers who’d gathered for a celebration. Aside from the soldiers, the state was nowhere to be found.

There was no disaster management agency to coordinate a response and no state of emergency or martial law was declared (despite the military’s apparent recommendation). The state’s earthquake fund, established in 1972, was found to have just 1 million lira, then worth $2. The 78-mile-long fault rupture severed the primary fiber-optic cable connecting Istanbul and Ankara, leaving the government in the dark, and damaged the highway and railways between the two cities. Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit blamed the slow response on this, but he couldn’t explain how the media and foreign rescuers were able to reach the area within hours.

“Is Ankara or America further away?” asked Mustafa Yılmaz, a state minister.

The corruption-riddled relief organization, Kizilay (Turkish Red Crescent), was absent for days. When it eventually showed up, the few tents it scrounged together were of poor quality and leaked in the rain that drenched the region in the days following the quake. Four months later, a study found that only 10% of survivors reported having been helped by any state services, including the military, in the initial days following the quake.

“Where is the state?” people cried into the many cameras carried by Turkey’s new private news broadcasters who managed to show up long before officials.

Newspaper headlines were merciless: “The state is under the rubble”; “We’re victims of the state”; “The people abandoned.” For a society in which many venerated the near-sacred “papa state” as beyond reproach, both the failure of the authorities and the fury directed toward them were a shock.

In Cumhuriyet, Turkey’s oldest newspaper, Abdülkadir Yücelman wrote, “It’s not the Marmara that collapsed, but the system itself.” Trust in the state was “below zero,” Fatih Altayli declared in Hürriyet, another newspaper, warning that “the damage done to society by this lack of trust is far more destructive than the earthquake.” Ömer Çelik, a future minister for the Justice and Development Party (AKP), wrote, “When those who can’t govern act like they can run this unmanageable mechanism, it costs thousands of lives,” rebuking those who were silencing criticism in order to preserve “national unity and solidarity.”

Even the beloved military was no longer infallible, at least for a few days. “In the first two days the people searched for soldiers in vain,” wrote Can Atakli in Sabah. “The soldiers get everything and we get nothing,” a bitter woman screamed to a journalist from The Guardian.

In the absence of an official rescue effort, a massive civilian mobilization unlike anything seen before in Turkey began from the earliest hours, with student groups, Islamic charities, businesses, doctors, engineers and ordinary citizens descending on the earthquake zone from across Anatolia schlepping water, bread, boxed milk and tinned food, clothing, cranes and bulldozers, and all other manner of supplies they could carry. Later, they provided eyeglasses, laundry services, soup kitchens, psychological support and even legal aid and media advocacy to give voice to the victims.

“The people are running towards the disaster zone without waiting for the state,” proclaimed Hürriyet’s front page. The TÜSİAD business association estimated that 10 million of Turkey’s 14 million households contributed aid.

Many of the groups would go on to form NGOs, and the relief effort marked a renaissance for Turkey’s embryonic and heavily factionalized civil society, in large part organized and financed by the business owner and philanthropist Osman Kavala, then 42, who raced to Değirmendere to offer any help he could. After the earthquake, Kavala devoted himself solely to civil society and founded some of Turkey’s most important arts and cultural organizations. Many of the most prominent activists, urban planners and architects who would later play a major role in the 2013 Gezi uprising, which was in part a protest against turning a designated meeting place in the event of an earthquake into a shopping mall, first met during the 1999 relief effort.

Foreign rescue teams, some coming from halfway around the globe, arrived days before state officials, bringing the rescue dogs and specialized equipment that Turkey lacked. The German daily, Bild, published its headline in Turkish: “Arkadaslar, Almanya acinizi paylasiyor” (“Friends, Germany shares your pain”). As the mayor of Athens collected donations and called for borders to disappear, headlines in Turkey’s rival Greece gushed: “We are all Turkish,” and “Mehmet, my brother, be brave.” Hürriyet responded with a headline in Greek: “Efharisto poli file” — “Thank you, neighbor.” Later, when U.S. President Bill Clinton and his family visited the tent cities, children followed him in droves, shouting, “Uncle Clinton.”

One by one, the dogmas that had been drilled into Turks since primary school — that their country was surrounded by enemies, that “the only friend of a Turk is a Turk,” that the people must put the state before themselves — collapsed.

“We always thought that the only friends of Turks were Turks. We know now that we were manipulated,” proclaimed Tourism Minister Erkan Mumcu. “We should open our society to the world.”

A spirit of boundless hope took hold, and commentators compared the atmosphere to the falling of the Berlin Wall. “The earthquake is the starting point for the establishment of a new mentality, a new spirit, a modern new administrative, scientific and technical vision for all of Turkey,” raved the journalist Orhan Bursali in Cumhuriyet.

When President Süleyman Demirel finally visited the areas of devastation, insisting that it was not the time for placing blame, he was confronted by a woman who said, “The ones left under the rubble are my loved ones.” She was promptly removed by officials. Demirel called the quake “fate” and an “act of God,” harped on about the “mighty power” and “omnipotence” of the state, and complained about those who “demean” it. Hürriyet fired back: “It wasn’t fate. It was a crime.”

Demirel insisted that “nobody estimated when, where and [to which degree] such kinds of disasters would happen.” In reality, two years before the earthquake, scientists pointed out in a prestigious journal that “the port city of Izmit is most vulnerable to an earthquake.” Just months prior to the quake, Turkey’s most respected union of architects and engineers held a conference in Kocaeli that was titled “Is Kocaeli Ready for an Earthquake?” In case the answer hadn’t already been clear, local and foreign media soon got to work exposing the deplorable quality of nearly all of the most damaged buildings.

Construction experts told the Los Angeles Times that “virtually all” of the collapsed buildings weren’t up to code. The New York Times reported that an “astonishing” number of the collapsed buildings were built in the last five years. In Eskişehir, about 75 miles away from the epicenter, a disgusted police chief described a seven-story building that collapsed and entombed 27 souls as “made completely from sand and soil.”

Following the horrendous 1939 Erzincan earthquake, national standards for earthquake-resistant buildings were implemented in 1944 and updated numerous times over the years. In defiance of laws, contractors scrimped on materials, eschewed soil tests and added extra stories to buildings, encouraged by politicians eager to collect bribes to look the other way. They could even hocus-pocus their slapdash buildings into legality by paying a fee to the government, the notorious “construction amnesties.”

The public was livid. “Murderers,” ran a blistering Hürriyet headline. Furious mobs stoned the homes of corrupt builders. The media directed its ire at one in particular. Veli Göçer (whose last name means “collapses”), dubbed the “death contractor,” had built 500 of the collapsed buildings in Yalova from concrete made with sea sand and bits of garbage. He expressed no guilt in an interview at the time, declaring he was a literature graduate and didn’t know anything about construction: “I’m a poet, not a structural engineer.” Despite 2,100 lawsuits filed against contractors, he was the only one who ended up going to prison, serving seven and a half years of an 18-year sentence. He opened a new construction firm in 2018.

Officials were happy to pin the blame on contractors but lashed out when public ire was directed toward them. Ankara prosecuted the critical broadcaster, Kanal 6, for “provoking hatred among the public towards the state,” and shut it down for a short time. Ecevit warned the media against “demoralizing” coverage, saying no one had a right to “hurt the feelings” of state officials. The governor of Bolu actually slapped an earthquake victim who criticized him.

Three days after the quake, Chief of the General Staff Hüseyin Kivrikoğlu held a press conference where he castigated the media for its critical coverage and for not showing his 53,000 soldiers in the area. The old red lines were immediately reestablished, and the media dutifully changed its tone overnight, at least toward the military.

Yet no one matched the sheer vindictiveness of the ultranationalist Health Minister Osman Durmuş, who refused aid from the United States and other foreign countries (particularly Armenia) that “do not suit our culture,” telling survivors they could wash in the sea and use the toilets in mosques, and insisting that Turks should not accept donated Greek blood.

“I take being called ignorant and racist as a compliment,” he sneered during a press conference. Durmuş even threatened to file charges against AKUT, the heroes of the relief effort who managed to rescue 200 souls, and accused other non-state relief workers of “putting on a show.” On Aug. 24, a week after the quake, he woke up to a screaming Hürriyet headline directed to him personally: “Shut up.”

By the fourth day, when there were almost no survivors left to rescue, the state at last started to organize its response. “Finally,” read Hürriyet’s sardonic headline. But Ankara resolved to seize complete control over the aid so that the people would regain their confidence in the almighty state, allowing only state-friendly NGOs to continue operating in the area. Religious, leftist and human rights NGOs were kicked out, their water shut off, their bank accounts frozen. Several NGOs, including AKUT, were investigated for accepting foreign aid. The Ministry of Public Works refused to allow the TMMOB union of architects and engineers to inspect the damaged buildings, as evidence was thrown into the sea.

When the rescue efforts wrapped up and the foreign teams headed back home, the true scale of the devastation was calculated: 365,000 damaged buildings, over 110,000 of them heavily damaged or collapsed. A quarter of a million people were left homeless, some staying in prefabricated housing units for as long as a decade. No one seemed to take the government’s death tolls seriously. “These numbers are not convincing,” future President Abdullah Gül told the press. A 2010 parliamentary commission later put the figure at 18,373, with a further 5,840 missing. Many experts think the figure is far higher, and a study from 2004 estimated with a confidence level of 90% that the toll was, at minimum, 45,000.

The collective trauma left on Turkish society by the Marmara quake never disappeared.

“Society became more anxious; a sense of loneliness entered people’s lives. A sense of insecurity increased and individuals and groups suffered fragmentation,” the psychotherapist Deniz Altinay told New Lines in an email. Studies put the PTSD rates among the survivors as high as 76%.

In the weeks and months following the quake, not just Kocaeli but all of Istanbul was terrorized by constant aftershocks. Some jumped from their balconies for fear their building would collapse. Many slept outdoors. Because the earthquake happened at 3:02 a.m., millions of people refused to go to sleep until after that time, something Akgüngör, the AKUT rescue worker, called the 3:02 syndrome. “In Istanbul, we’d go out at 2, 3 in the morning in October, November 1999. We’d look around and all the lights would be on,” he told me.

İrem, now a doctoral student of anthropology at the University of California, Davis, still gets anxiety attacks during which she swears she can feel the ground moving. Her mom, who had to prepare her own cousin’s body for the funeral in 1999, suffered from fainting spells for 15 years. Many who survived feel guilty.

Değirmendere was never the same afterward.

“I always felt like a part of me was gone, because a part of the town was gone,” İrem said. Much of the population left. After the tsunami, a sea-worshiping people became traumatized by the water. The sea swallowed much of the coastline and never gave it back. In 2004, an AKP mayor won the election, and the party went on a massive construction spree, paving over open wounds with concrete.

“I guess people thought that’s how we’ll heal our wounds. Not with any accountability, but by building stuff,” İrem said. “But we were never healed because we never found justice.”

The scholar Gönül Tol participated in the relief effort in 1999 while a university student and was near the earthquake zone on Feb. 6 of this year, where she lost family members after no state rescue workers showed up for days. She remembers hoping that things would change after 1999 but said the response from hollowed-out institutions this time is far worse. Earthquakes are inevitable, but the real catastrophe is one-person rule.

Her voice shook with anger as she described all the same cascading institutional failures of 1999 magnified, made worse by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s centralization of power. “At least before, the government and state were different entities. Now, one man has become everything,” she said. “You see agency after agency, official after official, just frozen, waiting for orders from Erdoğan.” The stronger his rule becomes, the less capable he is of governing.

Today, Turkey’s media is a shadow of its former self, almost fully kowtowed to the government, with vanishingly little freedom to report critically. Erdoğan himself has become the living personification of the ostensibly infallible, sacrosanct state. Rather than simply ignoring experts, the government now throws them into prison, including many of the most prominent figures who participated in the 1999 earthquake relief effort and the 2013 Gezi protests — the philanthropist Kavala, the architect Mücella Yapici and the former head of Istanbul’s Department of Earthquake Risk Management and Urban Improvement, Tayfun Kahraman.

After the 1999 earthquake, the writer Orhan Pamuk wrote about how deep the rot runs that led to such unnecessary devastation. “[I]t was all too likely that the politicians, state officials and bribe-taking mayors being railed against would again run for office and again find favor with these voters. It was also likely that these people complaining so bitterly had at some point in their lives paid bribes to the city council to circumvent the construction codes and would have considered it stupid not to do so.”

It’s too early to say what the repercussions of the Feb. 6 earthquakes will be, or if any lessons will be learned this time. İrem, who studies natural disasters, said an earthquake is like an opened Pandora’s box, laying bare all of a society’s hidden or unspoken problems. She finds it hard to watch countries like Japan or Chile transform and adapt their cities to protect themselves from earthquakes. “And then look at us. It’s not fair.”

Bahar, now an anthropology graduate student at Leuven University in Belgium, said that after a short time, most people stopped talking about earthquake preparations in Izmit. “People didn’t care,” she said, recalling that politicians talked about it for a couple of years and then stopped.

Akgüngör, who decided to study disaster management and wrote a dissertation about Turkey’s historical responses to earthquakes, said the pattern is generally the same: The initial state response is poor; there’s an outpouring of criticism; the response improves; and the criticism eventually dies off.

“You see the cycle again and again, yet you don’t observe a substantial political or social change.”

That change must be radical and sweeping, which scares people and threatens powerful structures and entrenched interests. Akgüngör said there is only a short window following a catastrophe in which society demands changes.

“But that window closes very fast.”

By: Nick Ashdown – a journalist based between Brussels and Istanbul

Source: News Line Magazine

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