Earthquake In Turkey: Homeless drag themselves from the ruins to the chaos of a canvas slum

Andrew Buncombe@AndrewBuncombe
Sunday 22 August 1999 23:02

ON A wretched field of weeds and thistles they were building a city of canvas. Cramped in rows of 20 or more, these were the same sort of tents Turkey sent a few months ago to help the refugees of Kosovo. Now on a piece of wasteland on the edge of town they were sheltering the people left homeless by Turkey's own tragedy.

This, it seems, is the best that can be offered to the hundreds of thousands who have lost everything. A thin cotton shelter, a few rough blankets, a handful of donated clothes that barely fit. No one is calling these people refugees, but it is hard to see how in the short term they are much better off.

"They have said we could be here for six months," said Yasar Denizci, whose family of six lost all their possessions when their eight-storey apartment block collapsed. "We might have to spend the winter here. It's frightening." Now the family is sharing a single tent - too hot to sit in during the day - containing just a couple of blankets and a cooking pot.

"We have lost everything, we have been able to salvage nothing. My aunt died in the rubble. We survived only because we jumped off the balcony as our building was collapsing."

There were about 600 tents in the field on the outskirts of Izmit and the authorities said they are preparing to house 3,000 people on an area little bigger than two soccer pitches. With more than 40,000 homes in the city uninhabitable such numbers are certain to swell over the coming days as those whose homes have been destroyed or have been damaged beyond repair continue to arrive.

It is the same in other towns and cities across the region of north-west Turkey struck by the earthquake. In Golcuk, Yalova and Adapazari - names a week ago that were unknown to most and have now become synonymous with misery and death - authorities are setting up similar camps.

The most pressing need in these miserable places is for toilets and sanitary facilities: six days after the earthquake the homeless of Izmit were yesterday still having to manage with a pit dug in the corner of the field. The piles of human excrement that lay dotted between the thistles suggested this was not enough.

Such are the concerns of doctors and volunteers trying to prevent the spread of disease on a site where people are living in such close proximity that the guylines of their tents overlap.

"There are a lot of worries that disease is going to be a problem," said Lauren Barron, a family doctor from Texas, who was working with a German medical charity, Humedica.

"The biggest worry are things such as typhoid which is spread through dirty water and through lack of sanitation. We have enough medication but the organisation is pretty bad. There is definitely a lack of co-ordination at the top."

Such chaos was obvious. In front of a truckload of medical and hygiene supplies, people were pushing and shoving in a queue to receive armfuls of the donated items.

Amid the shouting and anger, little boys aged no more than seven or eight were walking off with packets of sanitary towels as the women in the queue berated them furiously. The boys simply ran off, curiously studying their bounty.

Elsewhere, in another example of the misuse of resources, a group of soldiers armed with semi-automatic rifles were dragging a bin-liner of donated clothes between the tents, stopping off to offer their wares like a band of travelling salesman.

It seemed preposterous. While these men could have been digging more much- needed toilets or erecting washing facilities they were wasting their time distributing items people could have collected themselves.

At another camp of tents, also in Izmit - the city on the Sea of Marmara whose oil-slicked waters cover the epicentre of the earthquake - things seemed slightly better organised.

On a dusty soccer pitch amid the collapsed apartment blocks, portable toilets had been set up, with plastic tanks of water for washing.

A makeshift kitchen was preparing food while queues were forming for rations of supplies. At one, volunteers were handing out soap, flannels and towels. At the other, people were coming away with bags of pasta, packets of rice and bottles of oil. The people arriving here may not starve but they were a pitiful sight. And yet among this misery there were flashes of a generous spirit these people had no reason to have retained, the legendary hospitality of Turkey.

"Hello, can we offer you some tea?" said Melahat Akyildiz as she waved towards a carpet the family had laid outside the tent.

Moments later, a tray had arrived carrying glasses of tea sitting on delicate white china saucers. There was a jar of sugar and an engraved pewter dish of biscuits. The woman whose quake-damaged home was now too dangerous for her to live in felt she should apologise. "I am sorry we cannot offer you more," she said.

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