On Their Own: Isolation, and Resignation, in Villages Devastated by Quake

In a small cemetery toward the end of a dirt road that winds between snowy mountains in rural southern Turkey, a dozen new graves slant partway up the mountainside. Pine fronds and olive branches have been laid on top. At the head of each grave stands a cinder block tied with a scarf, a small tribute: purple, red, flowered.

The villagers of Kayabasi buried their loved ones themselves, their town cut off, blocked by boulders that had crashed down during the earthquake that had shaken them recently. Until the road was cleared two days later, they were on their own.

“Everyone took their dead out from the rubble however they could, with their hands,” said Ozkan Durmaz, 36, who works for a telecommunications company. “We didn’t expect everything from the government. There was solidarity between citizens.”

In the aftermath of last week’s earthquake, which killed more than 31,000 in Turkey, broken cities received wall-to-wall news media coverage and the bulk of emergency crews and aid.

Help did not start rolling into the rural areas such as Islahiye, the district surrounding Kayabasi, for days, held up in part by damaged or blocked roads and by what local volunteers said was a lack of awareness of the area’s great need.

A man walking in the rubble of a minaret that fell.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times
Men setting up a tent that was donated in Kayabasi on Saturday.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Across southern Turkey, earthquake survivors who have been sleeping outside — unable to go home, or unwilling to risk staying inside amid fears of aftershocks — remain in need of shelter, blankets and toilets. The gap appears particularly acute in rural areas.

The district of Islahiye, which is famous for its grapes, received little attention until social media posts started being shared by celebrities, said Hacer Bulbul, 36, a native of the town of Islahiye. Her Instagram post about the area eventually helped draw donations there.

Ms. Bulbul, a personal development expert who lives in Istanbul, returned to her hometown on Tuesday and has barely slept since, distributing donated aid from a gas station on a shattered street in Islahiye.

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The first three trucks of government supplies arrived on Wednesday. But her mind kept racing, going over the things that the thousands of people sleeping in the freezing cold, mostly under tarps, still needed: tents, heaters, cooking gas, pots and pans so people could make use of donated rice and bulgur wheat.

“Until yesterday, there was still a lot of rubble with bodies under it. People died screaming under the rubble,” Ms. Bulbul said, adding that even though donors sent heavy machinery to lift the debris, no one was available to operate it.

“There was a lack of coordination,” she said, and the team sent by the government was “very small.”

Sevinc Bulut, a mother of five, preparing tea inside the tent where families were staying after their houses were damaged by the earthquake in the village of Kayabasi.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times
Across southern Turkey, quake survivors who have been sleeping outside — unable to go home, or unwilling to risk staying inside amid fears of aftershocks — remain in need of shelter and toilets.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Home to native Turks, people of Kurdish origin and Syrian refugees, Islahiye sits in the flat of a valley, with villages radiating out into the rolling green hills and white-capped mountains. One-story homes of concrete or mud brick dot the landscape in pastel clusters, some with grape arbor vines climbing their roofs, interspersed with the occasional small school or mosque.

A stream runs along the road into the mountains, dammed here and there into small waterfalls. On Saturday, cars and trucks had to navigate around hulking boulders on the side of the road that had torn gashes into the mountainside and ripped olive trees from the earth when they tumbled down during the disaster.

Kayabasi, the second-to-last village on the route, has been around for at least 200 years, residents said. They count the population not by the number of people but by the number of households, which was around 300 before the earthquake.

There are few landmarks: the Gulpinar mosque, whose minaret has collapsed; the cemetery; the elementary school; the two mini-markets; the aluminum mine; an ancient site up on the mountain that the villagers’ grandparents told them marks the graves of sacred martyrs.

As the earth shook the darkness early on Feb. 6, some villagers said they heard a voice bellowing down from the martyrs’ graves. “Allah!” it called, in what they interpreted as a lifesaving warning. People ran into the knee-high snow barefoot.

About a dozen people from the village died. One family was pulled from the rubble alive.

A woman carrying blankets donated by volunteers.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times
Kayabasi has been around for at least 200 years, residents said.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

The aftermath offered reminders of the village’s isolation. With no imams left in Kayabasi, a retired one conducted rites for the dead. With no available help from the local municipality, villagers dug the graves themselves. With no government tents on offer, they drove to less remote villages to try to scrounge white tents.

Days later, there was resigned acceptance at being left on their own. The destruction had been widespread, residents said, and the roads had been blocked. They just hoped they would get more tents soon.

Some villagers packed what they could and moved to other towns or cities to be with their children, who had left years earlier to find jobs. Those who remained were living under tarps.

“It’s hard to earn bread here,” said Ali Uygun, 54, a white-haired man who works as a driver and a shepherd. “We can’t read or write. We don’t have brains. If we had brains, we wouldn’t stay here.”

Like other parts of southern Turkey where the government has uprooted entire towns at will after earthquakes or to make way for dams, this area has a history of forced migration, displacement and resettlement that has permanently split communities. Ms. Bulbul’s grandfather was among many tribal leaders from around Turkey whom the government forced to migrate to Islahiye, in order to break the power they held in their original homes, she said.

Some villagers packed what they could and moved to other towns or cities to be with their children, who had left years earlier to find jobs. Those who remained were living under tarps.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times
A cemetery with fresh graves in Kayabasi.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Their faces still blank with shock, survivors in Kayabasi said they had not given much thought to where they would live beyond the next few days. Maybe they would be told that their homes were stable enough to live in, and they would stay. Maybe they would have to move elsewhere, and they would leave.

“It’s up to the government,” more than one man in the village said.

For the women, who spent most of their days at home taking care of the children, the idea of leaving seemed more disturbing.

Sevinc Bulut, 37, a mother of five, had taken over the cooking for five families sharing the same two tents, using melted snow for tea and soup for the first two days, until water arrived on aid trucks. Until someone managed to find a government-issued tent on Friday, they had been sleeping in shifts under one blue tarp stretched over little olive trees: women and children lying on daybeds hustled out of their partly collapsed houses, men sitting up or standing guard outside.

Donated sacks of potatoes lay piled along one side. A wood-burning stove they had risked going inside to retrieve warmed the center, its chimney poking out from a hole in the tarp.

Melting snow and rain the first few days had made the ground a muddy misery; Ms. Bulut and her husband decided to send her in-laws away to stay in a slightly better tent in their relatives’ village, and she was afraid that a “very naughty” child of hers was getting sick.

But despite the frigid conditions, Ms. Bulut could not imagine separating from her relatives and neighbors in Kayabasi.

“If everyone leaves, I don’t know what to do here alone. If I go, what’s she going to do?” she said, gesturing toward Neslihan Bulut, 45, her sister-in-law. “We can’t leave each other.”

She released a sigh. The future was unclear. Even tomorrow was unclear.

“Well,” she said, lifting her shoulders in a shrug of resignation. “We are here for now.”

A view of a damaged mosque in Bogazici, Turkey.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

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