Turkey must act to avert an earthquake tragedy

July 27, 2009

Almost 10 years ago exactly, a 7.6 magnitude earthquake struck northwestern Turkey, killing as many as 40,000 people. Thousands were crushed in their beds when their buildings, such as the one pictured above in Kaynasli, collapsed.

An outcry ensued over the shoddy construction material, loose building codes and widespread corruption among licensing officials: these were correctly blamed for the high death toll.

Seismologists warn the next quake will be much nearer to Istanbul, which lies directly on the fault line.

At noon last Monday, I was in my apartment in Istanbul when I heard an explosion. The building shook. Furniture in my apartment fell over, and books flew off my shelf. Everyone in the neighbourhood began screaming.

My first thought was “earthquake”. Shortly afterwards, my neighbours shouted from the street to my window, warning me to evacuate. They told me that construction workers at the site next door to us had destroyed the foundation of our building and that it might collapse.

The police arrived and quickly declared our building unsafe for habitation. I did not have time to get my computer, my files, my notes, toiletries, or a change of clothes. I was given no information about when I could return. Stunned, I walked to the back of the building. The damage was extensive. The lower floor of my building was bashed in. It looked as if a bomb had gone off.

Since mid-May, 2009, the Ankara-based construction firm Sargin Ins. Mak San Tic. AS, owned by Huseyin Sait Sargin, has been attempting to build a new, modern apartment building on the lot near my building.

It is vacant but for a lovely Ottoman bathhouse, one wall of which abuts mine. That wall was destroyed. What remains of that priceless ancient wall will soon be carted away in a dump truck. Now no one will ever see it again.

It is obvious that the construction company has committed one of two crimes. Either this was an accident, in which case the company is guilty of negligence and reckless endangerment, or it was deliberate. There is good reason, a priori, to wonder if it was deliberate.

I do not have the forensic or technical expertise to prove it, but many people in my neighbourhood are convinced that the company could not get legal permission to destroy an Ottoman wall, and therefore destroyed it ‘by accident’. It is certainly not easy to destroy that much of a building without some real effort and forethought, no matter how incompetent and reckless you are.

Ten years after the earthquake, illegal, shoddy construction — motivated by greed and a belief that powerful construction companies are above the law — remains one of the most pressing social issues facing Turkey.

It is estimated that 90 percent of the construction in Istanbul is illegal, and much of this construction does not conform to safety codes, earthquake codes in particular. This story is evidence of this.

If this act was deliberate, the people responsible for it should face the most severe criminal penalties the law allows. No warning was given to the residents of the building. Had the building collapsed, we would all have been killed.If it was an accident, the construction company should be shut down: it is obvious that they do not have the technical expertise, qualified personnel, or respect for safety required to execute this kind of project in an earthquake zone.

But no charges, apparently, have yet been brought against the company. I am outraged, but not surprised. This company somehow managed to get permission to build a new, modern apartment building on top of a priceless archeological ruin, after all.

When I told Sargin that I had been made homeless and needed to be put up in a hotel, he accused me of “trying to profit from the situation”. If nothing else, this man has a fine sense of irony.

The justice system in Turkey is severely overtaxed. Criminal trials can take years. Turks are reluctant to use the civil justice system: They believe nothing will ever be resolved by it, and quite often they are right. Construction companies such as this one count on this fact.

When I told Sargin that I would bring civil charges against him, he shrugged and said, “Go ahead.” If companies like this are ever to be forced to respect the law, they must be made to believe that there will be penalties for violating it, and that these penalties will be swift and certain.The governing AK party, which came to power in the wake of the last earthquake promising to stamp out corruption, has recently declared its determination to crack down on illegal and dangerous construction in Istanbul.

Last Sunday, Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan told his party, at the Ankara Provincial Congress, that “illegal actions are not allowed in politics in Turkey. Periods like that are over. We will not recognise those who do not recognise justice, the law and the national will. This is how it is.” If these words mean anything at all, this case should be a test of it.

Since this happened, I have been organising community meetings, holding press conferences, collecting evidence. I have spoken to hundreds of ordinary Turks who have told me that they, too, are horrified by this incident, and they, too, are unsure if the buildings they live in are safe. “You’re so right,” they say. “These people are a menace. This sort of thing happens all the time. We’re all in danger.”

Then they sigh, and say, “But you know, this is Turkey, you can’t change things.”

If everyone who’s told me how awful and shameful this is would act together, instead of looking passive and sorrowful and feeling sad for Turkey, of course they could change things. But if they don’t, and quickly, it is perfectly predictable what will happen when the next earthquake comes: it will be a massacre.

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