350,000 quake victims still freezing in tents

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The Independent Online
HER BABY daughter was burnt to death; now she stands and stares at the little patch of mud in Duzce where the infant, aged just seven months, died. Guner Demirkaynam and her husband survived Turkey's earthquake on 17 August, in which up to 17,000 people died. They survived the earthquake on 12 November, in which 675 people died. But they lost their child, Arife, here, in the muddy, freezing huddle of tents where the survivors eke out a living.

It is cold enough to turn your fingers numb in minutes. People are living in flimsy tents, designed for the summer, or pathetic shelters they have made themselves from plastic sheeting. The only way they can keep warm is to use gas heaters. Arife died when one of the heaters set fire to a tent. The blaze ripped through 14 tents in seconds.

Ms Demirkaynam kept insisting it was not her heater that started the fire. "Mine was switched off," she kept saying. "No one came to help us before. Now that my baby is dead, everyone is helping us. But what does it matter to me what life is like now? My baby is gone."

One more death among the tens of thousands from the earthquakes. But this one could have been prevented. Arife Demirkaynam was not killed by an earthquake no one could predict. She died because hundreds of thousands of earthquake survivors are still living a desperate life out in the bitter winter cold.

Night-time temperatures have sunk as low as minus 8C and they are getting colder - a low of minus 34C has been recorded in this region. The International Red Cross estimates that there are at least 350,000 people living in tents in Turkey at the moment. Most have been under canvas since the first earthquake.

Only a small minority are in properly insulated winter tents, and already a second baby has died in a tent fire. "It is more than serious," says Andrei Neascu of the International Red Cross. "This is really a tragic situation." The Red Cross fears the cold will cause serious respiratory illnesses. Already, you can hear people coughing in all the tent cities. "I just hope the winter tents get there."

Although it is Ramadan, the Turkish authorities have told those in the tent cities they do not need to fast, fearing that people fasting in the cold could make themselves seriously ill. But many, like Hatice Pir, are fasting anyway. "The earthquake was a punishment from God," she says. "No one can stop us fasting."

In the town of Bolu, the snow fell. Yet Fahrettin Aymis remained in the town centre in a tent he made himself from old carpets and blankets. It looks barely big enough for one but five people sleep in there, crammed in with their belongings.

Mesut Zorla was begging for money from anyone who could still spare it. The 19-year-old was a student in Bolu, now he cannot even afford the coach fare home to his family in the unaffected south-east. Bolu is a ghost town: buildings are still standing but everybody is too afraid to sleep inside. In Duzce, the authorities moved survivors of the August quake back into damaged buildings, which collapsed in the second quake.

"We're here for the winter, but it's impossible to survive," said Ali Uzun. "We'll all die." He is living in a flimsy summer tent in central Duzce with his family of four. His friend Hayrettin Erkalep lives in the next tent with his family of five. At night he stays awake, watching the gas heater, so his children can sleep in the warmth.

The Turkish authorities are working round the clock to provide relief - but against the odds. The state has put up thousands of prefabricated houses but people will not move into them. They say if they leave the broken towns they will lose their jobs; and if they move from the ruins of their homes they will lose their belongings buried in the rubble.

Justin Huggler