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In Turkey, quake triggers exodus from hardest-hit areas: ‘I don’t know if we will return’

Victims are entitled to free travel to other provinces, but tickets are hard to come by because of high demand and pre-registration requirements

Terremoto Turquia y Siria
A family leaves the Turkish province of Hatay on Monday.UMIT BEKTAS (REUTERS)

Berna Toprakçi is sitting with her husband and three children at the bus station in Gaziantep, the capital of one of the provinces worst hit by the earthquake of February 6 in Turkey and Syria, where the death toll has already exceeded 35,000. The five of them – like many other survivors – have been sleeping in their car ever since, even though their home has not collapsed. “It is not too badly damaged,” she admits. But the apartment is on a fourth floor and the family is afraid that a more intense aftershock will bring the building down. Weary of sleeping inside a vehicle night after night in freezing temperatures, and shaken by the memory of the earthquake, the Toprakçis are preparing to join hundreds of thousands of other Turkish citizens who are leaving the most affected areas of the country and moving to other provinces, on a journey full of uncertainties.

It will take Berna Toprakçi and her family about 16 hours to get to Istanbul. From there they will fly to the Netherlands, where some relatives of her husband reside. And then what? “Maybe we’ll come back, maybe not; I don’t know, right now nothing is clear,” says Berna, 43. One of her daughters, a teenager named Ilayda, seems fearful that the deadliest earthquake to hit the region in modern times might also mean forced migration for her. “Perhaps [the magnitude of] the earthquakes will be reduced and we will feel safer to return,” she says hopefully.

The Toprakçis bought their bus tickets out of pocket. But tens of thousands of other quake victims have been evacuated for free by road, rail, sea and air. The state emergency management authority, AFAD, said the state will provide accommodation for all those wishing to leave affected areas, and it has assigned different host provinces depending on the victims’ place of origin. Those who choose to go somewhere outside those designated destinations “will be accommodated according to the capacity” determined by the provincial governors. Authorities also said that no documents will be required to prove the state of one’s home.

Turkey’s vice president, Fuat Oktay, on Monday estimated that 400,000 people had already been transferred to other provinces. The earthquake has directly affected some 13 million people, of whom more than a million have been left homeless. The country’s main carrier, Turkish Airlines, said it evacuated 139,000 people in the week between February 6 and February 13, and said it expects to carry around 24,000 passengers a day. Smaller companies, such as Pegasus and SunExpress, have collectively evacuated more than 36,000 people.

The AFAD has established 10 meeting points for people who want to be evacuated at no cost. At the one in Gaziantep, about 15 families were waiting on Monday to board buses bound for Izmir and Istanbul. Municipal officials and gendarmes stood by, observing the registration process. The meeting point is located in the parking lot of the M1 shopping center, which has been converted into an immense shelter. Hundreds of families who have lost their homes now sleep there, among the fashion boutiques and candy stores.

Inside the M1 shopping center in Gaziantep, now converted into a shelter for victims of the earthquake.
Inside the M1 shopping center in Gaziantep, now converted into a shelter for victims of the earthquake.ANTONIO PITA

Like all crises, the earthquake has exposed social differences. Both at the airport and at the central bus station in Gaziantep, where some two million people lived before the earthquake, quite a few individuals simply walk in and purchase their ticket rather than registering for the free transfers. That leaves them out of the official count.

But there are doors that even money cannot open: on Monday, flights to the country’s two main cities, Istanbul and Ankara, were full for the next two days. There were also no buses to Istanbul until Tuesday. Gaziantep is the largest city in the area, so it is attracting many quake victims from the surrounding provinces. At the station, there were people waiting under blankets in the corners and charging their cellphones at the walk-through detector, which no longer works, just like the screen that used to announce arrivals and departures.

Veysel Käük, a 32-year-old music teacher, is at the airport, but he’s tired of trying to get a flight and has just bought a bus ticket to Ankara. “I can’t wait any longer. My mother is ill and these days have affected me a lot psychologically,” he says as he chain smokes. He lives in Istanbul but came to help as a volunteer. “I always do it in these cases,” he says, aware of the curse that hangs over a country that has experienced 50 earthquakes in a century. This time, Kaük did not find any survivors, just corpses.

Complaints

One of the most common complaints is that free tickets are hard to come by. Initially they could be obtained directly on site, but now it is necessary to pre-register online. And a 23-year-old lawyer from Umut said that “the state has been absent for three days;” this young man declined to give his name because his country is “a dictatorship” and he said he does not want to be identified as criticizing it because it could cost him his job.

Gaziantep is also the great center of the Syrian exodus, especially from the Aleppo area. Located barely 37 miles (60 kilometers) from the border, it is home to around half a million refugees, a quarter of the city’s population. For one of them, Bender Al Mohamed, 23, the earthquake has just ended his stay in the city, where he was living for work purposes. “This stage is over. I was only here for work,” he says before boarding the bus that will take him back to his family, near Antalya. He had been working in construction for a year and the tremor completely demolished his house. “Family comes before money. And here, now, I’m not going to have either money or family, so I’m going back home.”

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