One year after the deadly earthquake that struck Türkiye, it is almost impossible to come across someone who has not lost a family member, a friend, or a neighbor in Antakya center. The southern city lost half of its population after many immigrated to the neighboring cities, as well as Istanbul and Ankara, after burying their loved ones and collecting some of their furniture from the ruined buildings.
The survivors are now trying to rebuild their lives amid the ruins, ghost buildings, pervasive dust from the demolition sites, and the noise of the heavy machinery operating in demolishing the damaged buildings.
The first few months after the earthquake, one common image shared on social media was that of a shopkeeper reopening his partially repaired store, placing a container among the rubble of the destroyed buildings in the deserted city center, but with no customer in sight. These images became the symbols for the survivors who were demanding to be heard amid the huge wave of immigration from the city. The immigration led to concerns that the reconstruction would be neglected due to the absence of a remaining stable workforce.
The shopkeepers were pictured with water and a broom in their hands, the main arms of their struggle to keep their stores neat and clean amid the dust and rubble. Graffiti depicting the resisting shopkeeper soon emerged in the city, accompanied with slogans such as, “We have not left,” “Don’t lose hope; we will come back,” “Our houses have collapsed, not our dreams.” Some of this graffiti was even adopted by kebab shops run by owners who wanted to keep alive the memory of the earthquake and the resilience of the Hatay people to rebuild their lives.
As we approach the anniversary of the earthquake, many more shops have opened, and the local vegetable and fruit market is buzzing with people. Yet, everyone has something to say about how hard their lives have become.
Nothing has changed
Visitors are surprised that a year since the disaster, the city remains the same. It looks as devastated as ever. Among the rubble, tents, containers, and makeshift tinware constructions could be seen nearly everywhere, functioning as homes, shops, restaurants, banks, and offices.
The cityscape was so drastically changed by the disaster that one common experience shared by several survivors was getting lost in places they had known all their lives. Without any trees, historical buildings, cafes, or meeting points as landmarks, the residents couldn’t figure out where their homes used to be. Yiğit, a university student, explained that it once took him almost an hour to meet his friend, as no one was able to describe their location. He said, “We ended up using FaceTime and our voice to make ourselves heard to one another.”
One year after the earthquake, many survivors who remained in the city moved either to container towns or outside Antakya to other districts, as well as villages in Hatay. According to an official declaration in November 2023, more than 50,000 households were living in 175 container towns scattered across the city.
Those who lost their homes were able to benefit from an aid program that covered moving expenses and rental costs. However, the sums allocated as part of the program were not enough to rent a flat, as the prices had rocketed, due to the city’s loss of many buildings in the earthquake and the high inflation rate in Türkiye.
Many inhabitants, who did not have anywhere else to go, opted to move to container towns, which meant giving up their rental assistance.
In addition, a few still live in tents. One of the tent cities installed on a side street, a few kilometers away from central Antakya, accommodates around 50 Syrian families.
Mohammad lives with his wife and six children in one tent. When asked whether he was able to receive any aid, he replied: “Some people brought food for some time, but it has stopped now.” Mohammad is unable to work because a wall fell on his shoulder when he was trying to escape his house during the earthquake. So, his three sons have taken up jobs at a furniture shop.
They plan to modify their tent to accommodate for the winter and continue to live there. Mohammad does not have much hope about upgrading to a container. Frequent water and electricity cuts are the biggest hardship for him and his family as they receive electricity only every other day.
The power cuts are still a major problem in other parts of Antakya. Elif, a teacher living in one of the container towns, explained that the cuts have become less frequent compared to the initial months after the earthquake, yet when it does happen, it can sometimes take up to 48 hours for it to be restored.
“After the earthquake,” she said, “the immediate need was to restore electricity as soon as possible, and the workers rapidly and arbitrarily installed them wherever they were needed to meet the demand. Now, when a cut happens, it takes them a long time to figure out which cable to fix.”
For many survivors, rain is a major concern due to the fragile infrastructure of the city and the temporary housing sites. Not only do electricity cuts come often with rain, but also most containers are not waterproof. Water leaks from the top and beneath in places where the towns are built on plains.
Survivors blame it on the lack of planning and coordination which persisted since the rescue operations. “We are unable to plan anything and are just trying to pass each day at a time,” said Senem, a 45-year-old woman who lives in a 21-square-meter container with her three children and husband. Her children’s school collapsed during the earthquake, and now they are enrolled in remote education.
No place for families
In many financially better-off families, women immigrated to other cities for the education of their children, while men stayed in Hatay to continue their work. Yusuf is one of them. He currently lives in a container in his village and rents a flat in Istanbul for his wife and children.
After a short stay in Istanbul, Yusuf realized the difficulty of restarting a business there and returned to Antakya to reopen his shoe shop. After the earthquake, his new customers were mainly soldiers, police officers, and workers who came to the city as part of rescue operations or for construction work.
Many families indeed followed a similar pattern, which dramatically changed the men-to-women ratio in the city from 61,8 to 38,1%, according to the Hatay Planning Center.
Meanwhile, those whose buildings survived with “minor” or “moderate” damage have gradually moved back to their houses despite their constant fear of aftershocks and another earthquake. Those who live in moderately damaged buildings were left in limbo for months because authorities were in disagreement over whether such buildings would be safe to live in after reinforcement or should be demolished and rebuilt. Finally, in November, nine months after the earthquake, the state-run disaster and emergency organization (Afad) issued a memorandum clarifying the situation about such buildings.
Solidarity destroyed by politics
In the weeks that followed the earthquake, many individuals, groups, and NGOs stood in solidarity with the survivors, in particular with the residents of Hatay, as the city was seen as a living example of multiculturalism that boasts Arab-Alawite, Sunni, Christian, Armenian, and Jewish populations.
As soon as the heartbreaking images were broadcast on social media and on TV channels, citizens from different parts of the country tried to reach the region with their own means to send donations or help in rescue operations. New networks of solidarity were established inside and outside to work on how to rebuild life in the city. These stories are still vivid in the memories of the victims.
One year after the earthquake, however, memories of solidarity are overshadowed by the stories of disputes and disagreements, some of which had existed in the city before the disaster. No doubt, the highly polarized political atmosphere of the country also acts as a catalyst for deepening disputes and divisions.
The Arab-Alawite community of the city - the second largest after the Sunni population - which generally votes for the main opposition party, the Republican People's Party, has been particularly wary of the actions taken by the government of the Justice and Development Party. Müjgan, a 45-year-old restaurant owner, said the part of Antakya where she is from did not receive any government aid during the first three days after the earthquake becuase the region is mainly populated by Arab-Alawites.
Like many other Arab-Alawites in the city, she believes that the government used the earthquake to divide the community by making their lives harder and indirectly forcing them to immigrate by leaving them with no other option.
According to Müjgan, the division between the Sunni and Arab-Alawite populations deepened, in particular after the arrival of Syrian refugees in the city, which she also viewed as part of the government’s policy against the Arab-Alawite community. Two expropriation decisions of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan taken in the months following the earthquake also deepened the concerns of the Arab-Alawite community.
These decisions allowed the government-led housing agency (Toki) to construct new buildings in Dikmece and Gülderen, the two neighborhoods of Antakya populated mainly by Arab-Alawites. Both decisions are currently before the administrative court. Soon after the presidential decision, Dikmece villagers started a resistance against the expropriation of their olive groves and organized several protests, which led to violent clashes between them and the local police.
Local lawyer Ecevit Alkan said: “There is chaos in the city, and the politicians benefit from this situation; it is easier for them to govern that way.” Besides the repercussions of the national problems in the disaster-stricken city, disputes on various matters have become part of everyday life.
Alkan said: “Disputes can be found in nearly every WhatsApp group that were formed between the residents of different apartments who must decide together what to do about their collapsed buildings.” The options are either to reconstruct in the same place, which requires the consent of 50% of the flat owners, or replace their right of ownership with a flat from Toki.
Whatever they choose, the government will provide a grant of 750,000TL (around 24,700 dollars) and an interest-free loan for the same amount, the repayment of which starts two years later. These sums, however, are very low compared to the inflation in the country. Moreover, most of the survivors lost both their homes and jobs in the earthquake and fear that the new buildings might turn out to cost them much more than what the grant and the credit would cover, and so, they might end up in huge debt.
Currently, the buildings in the city are categorized into four groups: “destroyed”, “heavy damage”, “moderate damage”, and “minor or no damage”. However, these categorizations have also become a major source of dispute as many owners have taken the status of their properties to the courts in the hope of changing them to either “moderate” or “minor” damage to prevent their demolition.
Hatay, as well as its central district Antakya, are replete with buildings with a sign that says “Don’t demolish, taken to the court,” as the owners fear that if they lose even the ruins of what they used to have, their land can be seized for some government projects or new unaffordable apartment building. Government officials have expressed concern about the excessive number of cases that have inundated the local courts and which they believe are delaying reconstruction in the city.
The historical bazaar in the city, Uzunçarşı, is much more vibrant than it was a couple of months ago. However, the shopkeepers are also in disagreement with one another about its fate. The official plan is to demolish and rebuild it with better infrastructure.
Not everyone is on board with the plan, including Yusuf, who believes that the reconstruction would take much longer than what the officials have promised. He said the government has yet to keep any of its pledges. Also, if the bazaar were to be demolished, the shopkeepers will be temporarily transferred to a container bazaar, which according to Yusuf, lacks the soul that the historical market has and hardly attracts any customers.
The pro-government residents of the city are certainly more hopeful about the process, and they believe that if everyone puts their trust in the government, things will flow more smoothly. However, even Serdar, who works as a civil servant in the AKP-led Antakya municipality, admits that, compared to other cities hit by the earthquake, in Hatay, things are moving very slowly.
He said: “Hatay is seen almost like a tassel hanging beneath the mainland... Its problems hardly enter the political agenda as a priority.” Such sentiments are common among the locals, regardless of their affiliations.
Salim, for instance, painted his tractor in rainbow colors and described at the back how the city was left alone after the earthquake. He put on a makeshift license plate “31 Earthquake 4.17”, with 31 indicating the traffic code in Hatay and 4.17 the time when the first earthquake hit the city the hardest.
Salim used to own a restaurant before the earthquake, and had bought the old tractor to use it as an attraction in the front. He didn’t know that it would become his livelihood. For the moment, he uses it to collect items taken out of the demolition sites, but does not know what work he will find afterwards.
Ambiguity that has paralyzed almost every aspect of life in Hatay and the absence of effective political action to meet the urgent needs of the locals characterize the general atmosphere in the city one year after the earthquake. However, with municipal elections set for March 31, the politics in the city now revolve around electoral pledges made by candidates, whose credibility is doubted by many locals. If none of their pledges were fulfilled in a year, what are they hoping to achieve in a few months?