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As aid trickles in, earthquake survivors in southern Turkey adjust to downsized life

A woman sits on the rubble as emergency rescue teams search for people under the remains of destroyed buildings in Nurdagi town on the outskirts of Osmaniye city southern Turkey, on Feb. 7. Now, nearly a week later, many people in Osmaniye are still living in tents and other makeshift shelters.
Khalil Hamra
A woman sits on the rubble as emergency rescue teams search for people under the remains of destroyed buildings in Nurdagi town on the outskirts of Osmaniye city southern Turkey, on Feb. 7. Now, nearly a week later, many people in Osmaniye are still living in tents and other makeshift shelters.

Updated February 12, 2023 at 10:13 AM ET

OSMANIYE, Turkey — A young boy, no more than five years old, struggles along a dirt road, his arms filled with water bottles and some food.

He's just left an aid distribution center in this rural corner of the outskirts of Osmaniye, a provincial capital in southern Turkey's Mediterranean agricultural region, his full arms a sign that there's no shortage of volunteers when it comes to responding to the earthquake – at least on the ground at the local level.

Osmaniye took its share of the hit from the powerful earthquake and large aftershocks that devastated a huge swath of territory across the southern part of the country last week.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan included the city in his tour of hard-hit areas, acknowledging that the government didn't respond quickly enough.

Row after row of white tents erected by AFAD, Turkey's emergency management agency, fill one side of a pasture where the aid center is located. Across a fence, young men climb over a small mountain of plastic bags filled with donations. They upend the bags, spilling coats, clothes, shoes and other items onto a growing colorful pile.

Victims of the earthquake sift through the items, looking for warm clothes and blankets.

Burying the dead, sleeping outdoors

Sibel Dahli, a 27-year-old schoolteacher, says there was no aid that she could see for the first two days after the quake, but on the third day it began to be distributed.

She says her two-story house was cracked in the earthquake, so she and her relatives are now sharing a tent with two other families. She's also been in mourning for 17 members of her extended family, who perished in the quake.

As for returning home, she says that's out of the question at the moment.

"Even if the house is safe, I can't go in right now, it feels like it's shaking when I go inside the house," she says, adding that a "tent is good enough for me."

Government response 'not impressive'

Another woman, Gonul, 56, asks to be identified only by her first name because she's worried about retaliation from authorities for speaking about its earthquake response.

Gonul's property is small but lovely, filled with olive and orange trees that seem to have survived intact. The house, however, is badly cracked. She's waiting for an inspection to determine whether it can be repaired or must be demolished. To an untrained eye, the latter seems more likely.

She says when she woke up Monday morning to feel the ground shaking, she ran to the balcony and clung to the iron bars outside the window.

"I held onto the iron bars, the shaking was so strong," she says, "I went back and forth, back and forth."

She was not impressed by President Erdogan's visit and his claim that no state could have dealt with a disaster of this size. But more irritating to her was the fact that Erdogan's main political ally, the leader of the far-right National Action Party, Devlet Bahceli, didn't visit Osmaniye, where he was born.

"This is his hometown, he needs to show up," she says, adding "He's losing votes in his own hometown."

Newer buildings fared worse

A walk through this Osmaniye neighborhood offers anecdotal evidence to support a popular and longstanding complaint. Local residents point out how many older buildings are still standing, while newer ones collapsed into heaps of rubble.

This may seem counterintuitive, since the newer buildings were constructed after Turkey's 1999 earthquake, when more stringent building codes were put in place. The theory holds that the older buildings were more soundly constructed – they had, after all, withstood the 1999 quake, which killed more than 17,000 people.

The consensus here is that the problem wasn't the new regulations themselves, but shady contractors who increased their profits by cutting corners and not following the new rules. There are allegations that inspectors were bribed to sign off on the buildings.

People in the earthquake zone have their doubts as to whether contractors or anyone else will be held accountable, but the prosecutor in one affected province, Diyarbakir, began to issue arrest warrants on Saturday, and the first detentions were reported Sunday.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.
Gokce Saracoglu

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