Earthquake In Turkey: Survivors angry at cowboy builders


Justin Huggler
Wednesday 18 August 1999 23:02

"MURDERERS!" THE headline said it all. Hurriyet, one of Turkey's leading newspapers, marked the earthquake which devastated the northwest of the country on Tuesday more in anger than in sorrow. As the dust settles and the aftershocks subside, Turkey is getting ready for the lynching.

Everybody is looking for someone to blame. But the truth is that this was a tragedy waiting to happen in a country that has spent the last two decades dragging itself out of the Third World by cutting corners and chancing it.

The favourite scapegoats are the greedy constructors who ignored the country's building code and threw up woefully unsafe seven-storey apartment blocks with abandon.

Yesterday, the survivors were staring bitterly at the rubble that used to be their homes. "It was all sand," said Aymur Turanoglu, in tears as she hurled to the ground a piece of the concrete that once housed her family. "Once again, rotten buildings, once again, thieving, unscrupulous building contractors," thundered Hurriyet.

The politicians were only too happy to provide the rope. "The price for irresponsible behaviour is very high for our people," said the Prime Minister, Bulent Ecevit. "We shall take measures against it."

But the contractors are just one link in a tragic chain. Istanbul may look like a developed city when you are among the sumptuous villas of the rich on the shores of the Bosphorous, but a stroll through its teeming suburbs tells a different story.

The city was a catastrophe waiting to happen. In 1960 it was home to a million people. Now there are 14 million, the population out of control as rural Turks - and Kurds fleeing the military crackdown of the rebellion - rush to the big city in search of a better life.

They live crammed into desperately crowded poor quarters. The destitute live in pathetic makeshift homes they build with their own hands, known locally as gecekondus. The name means "built in a night", and some literally are built overnight, and these quarters look Third World.

But it was those among the poor who had saved enough to drag themselves out of the gecekondus who suffered most from the earthquake. They had saved enough to move into tower blocks. But in an economy where there are no mortgages and bank loans are the preserve of the seriouosly rich, constructors are forced to cut corners to make housing affordable. One Turkish civil engineer told me that many of the blocks don't even have proper foundations.

There was a backlash against the politicians yesterday, with Turks saying it was their responsibility to police the constructors.

"It is unbelievable that those who govern the earthquake-prone region we live in could be so unprepared," said the country's independent Human Rights Association.

Turkey has a construction code that is as stringent as California's, but it is rarely enforced. "The problem is that we don't have construction supervision," said one government official who asked to remain anonymous. "Most of the time the inspector approves the building without even visiting it. This is the general rule in Turkey."

The irony is that construction expertise is one of Turkey's most successful exports, and Turkish contractors built much of modern Moscow. But few Turks can afford the cream of their country's builders. "We don't have any standard for contractors," said the official. "You could become one tomorrow."

The lack of control is typical of a country that has built its recent success on turning a blind eye. Until last year, more than half the economy was unregistered for tax.

The role of government is ill-defined in a country where major strategic decisions are made in the form of whispered hints to the prime minister from a senior general at a cocktail party in the capital city, Ankara. Many politicians seem to regard office as little more than a moneyspinner, and corruption is a way of life. Most Turks find British political sleaze laughably small time, and bribery has played its part in winning permission for the shoddy buildings which cost so many lives.

"No one learned a lesson from the bitter experiences of the past," said Ali Sinan, head of architecture at Selcuk University in Konya. "I hope they learn from this one."

tTurkey is not the only country to have been hit by an earthquake this week.

Barely 24 hours after the Izmit quake, the San Francisco area was hit by a tremor measuring 5.0 on the Richter scale - more modest in scale, to be sure, but still enough to wreak major damage under the wrong circumstances.

There were no reported deaths, no injuries and no major damage.

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