It is a trauma that is still alive for millions of Turks. A year after the earthquake which devastated the south-east of the country and left more than 53,000 dead, many victims are still in shock from this 7.8 magnitude earthquake described as the "disaster of the century" by the president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

That night, 53,537 people, according to the authorities' latest report, published Friday, were surprised in their sleep and swallowed up in a handful of seconds under piles of concrete. With the 6,000 deaths recorded in neighboring Syria, the disaster's toll officially stands at nearly 60,000 dead and more than 100,000 injured.

See alsoTurkey, impossible mourning: many victims of the earthquake still missing

“It's been a year, but it hasn't left us,” Cagla Demirel, 31, sheltered in one of the container towns in Antakya, told AFP. Ancient Antioch, capital of the province of Hatay, bordering Syria, is 90% destroyed.

“Life has lost all interest,” she adds. "I have no more family to visit, no more doors to knock on, no nice place to live. No more."

In Turkey, an estimated 14 million people were affected by the double earthquake of February 6, which struck eleven of the country's poorest provinces.

The bitterness of the survivors

“It is a catastrophe whose immensity we gradually became aware of, seeing the difficulty of restarting certain economic activities. In a certain way, it is a catastrophe which is not yet over,” notes Jean Marcou, professor at Sciences Po Grenoble and associate researcher at the French Institute of Anatolian Studies in Istanbul.

In total, more than 100,000 buildings have collapsed, 2.3 million are damaged and 700,000 people are living in containers or tents for lack of housing. A year after the earthquake, the new buildings promised by the government are slow to emerge and only the rubble has been almost completely cleared.  

Also read: Earthquake in Türkiye: the challenge of rehousing

However, the day after the earthquake, President Erdogan promised 650,000 new housing units for the victims. But twelve months later, construction has only started on half of them, of which 46,000 are ready for delivery, according to the Ministry of Environment and Urbanization.

Traveling on February 3 to Hatay, one of the cities most affected by the earthquake, the head of state handed over the keys to the first 7,000 homes to families drawn by lot, far from the figures announced during the campaign.

A situation which fuels the bitterness of some of the survivors already burned by the slowness of relief in the days following the disaster. To show their feeling of abandonment, the survivors of Antakya grouped within a “February 6 Platform” plan to gather on Tuesday at 4:17 a.m., the time of the earthquake, to shout: “Is anyone 'one hears us?' and symbolically replay their despair on the night of the tragedy.

Civil servants spared

For his part, President Erdogan is trying to respond to the impatience of the affected populations, now promising to deliver "15,000 to 20,000 housing units per month" and calling on his fellow citizens to "trust the State and make [it] trust".

But this meager record in terms of reconstruction is not the only cause of the anger of the survivors. In the aftermath of the earthquake, the role of real estate developers, accused of having used low-quality materials in a proven seismic zone, was at the heart of public debate.

In the weeks following the earthquake, 260 of them were arrested, sometimes while trying to flee Turkey. But lawyers for the victims' families fear that many will escape justice, some of the evidence against them having disappeared under the tracks of the bulldozers. 

"While everyone was focused on their deceased loved ones, the evidence was removed and the rubble cleared," lawyer Ömer Gödeoglu, who defends families who filed a complaint against Tevfik Tepebasi, one of the main entrepreneurs of the Ebrar city of Kahramanmaras, where nearly twenty eight-story buildings collapsed, killing 1,400 people.

Also read: Earthquakes in Turkey: in Kahramanmaras, “half the city is reduced to dust”

In court, the company manager said he was innocent, even claiming in his defense that he “knows nothing” about construction rules, and placing the blame on his teams. An argument that sparked an uproar in the courtroom. Prosecuted in several investigations linked to the earthquakes, he faces up to 22 and a half years in prison if he is found guilty of causing death or injury through negligence.

Furthermore, of the rare prosecutions initiated over the last twelve months, none targets corrupt officials or politicians who issued building permits in disregard of town planning rules.  

“Despite this, we cannot say that nothing is changing,” believes Jean Marcou. “There has been awareness, particularly through projects to secure buildings in Istanbul, but the task is colossal and beyond the measures that can be taken. There is a culture of risk to assimilate” in a country sitting on two major fault lines.

A local vote on the horizon

President Erdogan's responsibility for the disaster had itself been raised by his detractors. During a meeting in Kahramanmaras in 2019, the Turkish head of state welcomed a controversial amnesty law adopted the previous year, which regularized nearly six million illegally built homes across the country. . Legislation which could have contributed to increasing the number of victims.

Re-elected in May 2023 for a third term despite criticism against the AKP and the crisis management by the authorities, can Recep Tayyp Erdogan pay politically for the consequences of the earthquake? Municipal elections are scheduled for March 31, less than a year after his re-election as head of state and his large victory in the legislative elections.

“There is certainly anger, but it is difficult to know how it will be expressed at the polls,” underlines Jean Marcou. “Even if the context is not very favorable to the AKP [the Islamo-nationalist Justice and Development Party, Editor’s note] with the economic crisis, the opposition is entering the battle divided, unlike the previous election” . In 2019, the presidential party lost the capital Ankara and Istanbul, the country's largest city, of which Recep Tayyp Erdogan had been mayor in the 1990s.

“Moreover, the most central part of the disaster took place in areas very favorable to the government. The province of Kahramanmaras notably voted 70% for Erdogan during the presidential election,” adds the expert. “When we look at these results, we cannot say that the earthquake had much influence. Beyond the anger, there is also a form of fatalism and great resilience on the part of the Turkish people. "

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