Monday, October 24, 2011

Earthquakes in Turkey: a nightmare repeating itself

The devastating earthquake that struck Turkey yesterday is unfortunately only one of the many seismic events occurring periodically in this country, which has a complex tectonic structure. Everybody's mind goes back to the 1999 earthquake, in the Northwest, which had a dreadful death toll. Orhan Pamuk remembers those dramatic moments in his book Other Colours.
I was awoken between midnight and dawn - at 3 a.m., as I was later to discover - by the first jolts. It was August 17, 1999, I was in my study in our stone house on Sedef, the little island just next to Büyükada, and my bed, which was three yards from my desk, was swaying violently like a rowboat caught in a storm at sea. A terrifying groan came from underground, from what seemed to be right under my bed. Without pausing to find my glasses, following instinct more than reason, I rushed outdoors and began to run. (...)
The first tremors lasted forty-five seconds, claiming thirty thousand lives; before they were over, I had climbed the side steps to the upper floor where my wife and daughter were sleeping. They were awake and waiting in the darkness, afraid and not knowing what to do. The electricity had failed. Together we went out into the garden and the enveloping silence of the night. The awful roar had stopped, and it was as if everything around us were likewise waiting in fear.
But I want to remember now another, slightly more recent earthquake that took place in the South East of Turkey - like the latest one - on May 1, 2003. It happened in the Bingöl province, or to be more precise,
The Kandilli Observatory and Earthquake Research Institute (KOERI, 2003) of Boğaziçi University estimated that the earthquake centered at 39.01 N and 40.49 E, which places the epicenter about 15 km NW of Bingöl city.
According to official anouncements the earthquake caused the loss of 176 lives and injured about 520 people. About 362 buildings collapsed and/or were heavily damaged, and 3026 buildings were moderately-to-lightly damaged in Bingöl city center. The number of collapsed or heavily damaged buildings in the whole earthquake affected region is announced as 625 and a total of 3650 were subjected to damage of different degrees. (Japan Society of Civil Engineers, report The Bingöl Earthquake of May 1, 2003)
Non-official sources speak of more than 180 dead. 84 were children aged between 7 and 17 who were sleeping in the dormitory of their collapsed school. But it was not just a random tragedy.The Turkish State had its share of responsibility in the disaster.

The site near Bingöl where used to be the school destroyed by the 2003 earthquake
But something positive came out of it as well: a group of architects and engineers founded Bindepder, the Association in Solidarity with the Victims of Bingöl Earthquake, intending not only to intervene in times when earthquakes strike, but also to inform people before and after seismic events. I met their President, Hayip Yolcu, in Bingöl on March 2005. He explained me how dangerous this area is, how many fault lines cross it: "Bingöl is in the middle of this region, - he added-, so it's possible to reach all the cities, all the provinces around here, so it's important that this association was founded here. In the aftermath of an earthquake we don't want trained people to come from the West of Turkey to work here. We want them to come here and share their experience with us. It's important to reach people in the 6 hours following an earthquake, because you have a chance to find them alive. But after 6 hours your chances get fewer and fewer, and it takes time to come from the West, so it's essential for us to be able to be immediately operative on our own. After that, we do want the experts from the West to come, so that they can share with us their experience, information and the equipment they use".

Hayip is very critical towards the government. One example: "There was an earthquake in 1996 in Varto. After that, the government built houses for the victims. Now, during the 2003 Bingöl earthquake those houses fell down. Only two houses are OK, and if you ask people why, they answer: 'because we built them'. It's the houses built by the government that collapsed".

Hayip Yolcu showing a shoe found among the debris
It was a different government. But things don't seem to work much differently with the new one: "We know that money arrived to the government from the European Union. We know three schools were built in this area. But this money was given to people who are close to the government. For example, there are villages where the schools were not heavily damaged, but the money went to these villages, where the municipalities were close to the government".

He then brings me to the place where the school used to be. On the site, there are still trousers and shoes, macabre reminders that real children were here on that night, and that they don't need those things any more.
The new buildings
A new school has been rebuilt since, a little further away, but always on the fault line. Besides, Hayip explains, the new buildings are not earthquake-proof: "First of all, there are four floors while there shouldn't be more than two floors. Second, the restaurant should be in a separated building, while it's situated on the ground floor, where there are gases that might explode during an earthquake".

A teacher tells us what happened that night:

Hayip showing children trousers
I used to live in the school apartments. I was sleeping, and first there was a small earthquake. I went out, but it was dark, so I could not see anything. I heard voices shouting, crying... I didn't think the dormitory had collapsed, I just thought that maybe the students were crying out of fear. But then a car passed by, and when the lights fell on the school, I realized the amplitude of the destruction. Immediately, we ran to help the children. That night in the dormitory there were 199 students and one teacher. Around 50 of them managed to escape. I took my car and went to ask help from the army. People from the village and from all over the region came with lorries, and we all tried to reach the children under the debris. During the day many groups from all of Turkey arrived, but they did not have enough material, they did not have the necessary equipment. It was such a painful day, we do not want to see that happen again.


Giangi said...

Ouf, j'ai eu peur hier, en lisant les infos, que tu te soies trouvée là-bas en ce moment... Et aussi en recevant ton message. En tout cas, merci !

Selene Verri said...

Merci à toi :)
En fait, j'aimerais bien être là-bas :(