On October 23, 2011, the city of Van in eastern Turkey shook twice when an earthquake measuring 7.3 took the lives of over 600 people. The first tremor caused only minor damage – it provoked momentous fear, but not much damage. Following not long after, a second, larger, tremor caused the destruction of numerous buildings and buried hundreds of people.
The disaster continues to creep back into the memories of the inhabitants through weak, hardly perceptible, aftershocks. But life returns.
Constanza, a 30 year-old lawyer living in Van, was in her office on the fourth floor of a building when it happened. “The ground, the walls and the ceiling were no longer stable, but moving,” she says. After feeling the first tremor, she raced down the stairs, got into her car and drove away from the city towards the lake. After the second tremor, her office building collapsed.
The Turkish state intervened to manage the crisis, bringing support from across the country. But all international support was refused, except for that offered by Iran and Azerbaijan, who did not provide aid until three days after the disaster. Evren, a 26-year old member of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) who was in Van after the disaster, finds that hard to understand. “How can you justify such a delay when the first hours after an earthquake are the most important for saving lives?” she asks. A Kurd raised in Istanbul, Evren is in her office on the fifth floor of a building that withstood the earthquake, she talks about Turkey’s decision: “Ankara first refused international support to hide its assimilation policy in eastern Turkey from Western governments and TV screens.” At the national level too, the aid was immediately politicised. Evren continues: “The Kurdish municipalities in the area worked independently of, not in cooperation with, the Turkish state. That led to delays, a lack of coordination and mistakes detrimental to rescuing human lives.”
After the earthquake, the unemployment rate in the region rose, due to the destruction of buildings and the slowing down of economic activity. This had unforeseen consequences for both men and women in Van. Zozan is the founder and manager of Van’s main feminist organisation VAKAD (Van Kadin Derneği). Born in Van, she went away to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus to study economics before returning to her hometown where she got married, divorced and then decided to fight for women’s rights, which are largely denied in the region. She sees an increase in violence, mostly domestic, as a direct consequence of the joblessness caused by the earthquake.
“The sudden and massive unemployment provoked a social upheaval in Van. Here, the traditional social role of the men – especially those in the city – is within the public sphere and the workplace. The private sphere is the responsibility of women. After the quake, the men, deprived of work, are forced to stay at home, losing their previous power and invading the space of women. This has disrupted relationships in the private space and led to a rise in domestic violence.”
To tackle this rising problem, Zozan established a tiny VAKAD premise in Lale Bir, one of the many container camps which today are scattered around Van and other cities in the area. After the earthquake, these camps served as micro-cities for people from affected villages. Van’s 29 camps are monotonous areas with rows of two-room bungalows providing temporary homes to up to twelve people each. With three exceptions, the camps do not have medical centres, supply buildings or schools; they resemble ghost cities rather than functioning human spaces. “The rise in violence can be explained by the lack of space in these camps,” explains Zozan.
Following the earthquake, two opposing movements – rural and urban – reshaped the populations of Van. Osgir, a psychologist working for MSF, was sent to Van by the organisation. All NGOs left a few months after the earthquake, but Osgir decided to stay in the city and the surrounding villages. She explains: “The rural areas have more employment opportunities and stronger familial networks, which prompted many people in the city to return to their villages.” At the same time, those from the most heavily affected villages were forced to find refuge in the container camps nearby towns.
Zozan set up sessions with psychologists in VAKAD’s offices in both Van proper and Lale Bir for victims of the earthquake. For the Kurdish population, the earthquake itself has surprisingly not been the primary issue. The psychology sessions are primarily providing an opportunity to speak about issues like domestic violence, incest, rape and violence. Eylem belongs to a team of psychologists sent to Van by the Turkish government. The earthquake is easier to talk about than violence or domestic abuse, things which in some cases have been exacerbated by the consequences of the earthquake, she explains.
Today, more than one year after the earthquake, Van is slowly rebuilding. The city is still marked by ruins and big empty spaces, and remnants in the form of cracked buildings appear as scars of the traumatic incident. So far, the rebuilding efforts have been minimal; only here and there does one come across a reconstruction project. The disaster continues to creep back into the memories of the inhabitants through weak, hardly perceptible, aftershocks. But life returns. In the mornings, people occupy their terraces for the traditional Kurdish breakfast. Shops are open, and traffic is dense once again. The empty spaces where collapsed buildings once stood are becoming part and parcel of the city’s image.
The containers cities, which were meant to be only temporary, are now connected to the network of mini-buses that run up and down in the city. Initially, the homeless victims of the earthquake were housed in tents unsuitable for winter weather, and some died from suffocation as they set up fires to heat them up. That was when the bungalows – or “square, burning hot boxes” as the residents call them – were established. The living conditions deteriorated quick in the cramped spaces. Dersim, who used to work in a food shop in Van, lost his job and house after the earthquake. Today, he lives in one of the container boxes with his wife and their five children. Occasionally, he works selling things in the market for his brother, who has a farm in a village outside Van. Dersim does not know when he and his family will have decent housing again. “At least we have a place to sleep and it’s better than the tents but the cold is hard to deal with especially for the baby. The government keeps delaying the date when we will be rehoused.”
Yet another new kind of housing is sprouting on the outskirts of Van: TOKIs, more permanent residential areas named after the public mass-housing administration. Slowly, life is being organised around the housing blocks in these neighbourhoods, which sometimes include a mosque and a commercial area. Aylin lives in one of these new accommodations. She describes them as transitional areas that inhabitants want to leave as quickly as possible. “The apartments are comfortable but very tiny, not suitable for families. They are far away from everything, and so monotonous.” Just like the containers camps, the new TOKI districts remain soulless parts of the city. Some earthquake victims are reluctant to live in them. To many in the Kurdish community, the rehousing represents a new form of assimilation by the Turkish government. “When you lose your house, you lose a part of yourself,” says Dersim from the container camp.
Pictures by Constance Proux.