Yet, despite the campaigns to ease the province’s pain, it is not easy to heal the wounds of the quakes, which resulted in more than 600 deaths, and the city continues to struggle to survive the chaos.
Some parts of Van look like a ghost town, with groups of empty houses with cracks in the walls and without doors and windows, mostly taken by owners to use in their temporary accommodations. The authorities continue to clear the wrecks of the collapsed buildings. Four months after the quake, the struggle of Van residents continues as well. Under disaster circumstances, they have been involved in another fight to keep their tents. Though these canvas shelters look undesirable to the ordinary eye, they represent home in this poor eastern province, which aftershocks have often hit following the earthquakes.
“We’ll stay until the last tent,” Filiz Bingöl, mother of two, tells Sunday’s Zaman. “They come from the governor’s office every day, urging us to leave,” she continued, praising the efforts of the state authorities, except for those at the governor’s office. Bingöl, who lives with her in-laws in a tent, says she and her family are being told to leave their tent and move into container housing located far from the city center. But she is refusing to do that because her family needs to be close to the hospital, which they go to often because her mother-in-law suffers from panic attacks and her son has arthralgia.
She is not alone in sticking with the current housing. Her neighbor, K.M., who does not want to share her name in order not to get in trouble with the authorities, says she went to the governor’s office to complain about their situation, and the answers given by the officials were thought-provoking: “They told me to overcome our fear and move back to our houses.” The building that K.M. and her family was living in has been classified as moderately damaged. She and her neighbors in the tent city want their voice to be heard by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. “We want Erdoğan to hear us. He should come and see the our deteriorating situation here. We have babies,” she says.
Before Erdoğan visits the quake-hit Van in March, tent residents say, officials are trying to make the tent cities less attractive, reducing security. They have also taken the fire extinguishers away. About 10 people have reportedly died in recent weeks due to fires that broke out in the tents. If they are not given container housing or encouraged to settle down in their moderately damaged houses, the tent residents are told to dismantle their tents and set them back up in the front yard of their houses, which according to tent residents, is impossible to do as snow still blankets the city. Another thing that keeps the tent residents away from their houses are the aftershocks.
Handan Numancıoğlu, another tent resident, talks about what happened following an aftershock last week. “The children were screaming and running out of their classrooms. I blocked my ears not to hear the ear-rupturing screams. It was horrifying.”
Those most disadvantaged by disaster: women and tenants
Being a tenant is another challenge here. In the absence of rental contracts, which were seen as unnecessary in this eastern Anatolian province, tenants usually do not have proof that they live in a certain place (unless the bills feature their names, which is not common). According to the Van Women’s Association (VAKAD), a hardworking organization exerting great effort to heal the wounds of women and children in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake, there are many landlords who have claimed the container homes designated for their tenants before the tenants can. The tenants, whose apartments have been damaged, end up having no place to live.
Such civil society organizations have had to undertake an important job under disaster conditions. VAKAD members say that those who go to the governor’s office to ask for help are told to visit NGOs such as VAKAD. VAKAD officials say city officials say that the governor’s office is not keeping records of the charities.
Being a woman is an even greater challenge in quake-hit Van, sociologist Aylin Çelik from VAKAD observes. She says the literacy rate among women is quite low in Van, and they have difficulty pursuing their rights. The women without husbands, including the divorced or widowed, face more difficulty in finding a container home.
But the good news is that, against all odds, the troubles of the women do not go unnoticed in Van, and other women’s organizations across the nation have extended a helping hand to the wrecked city. In collaboration with VAKAD, several civil society organizations held workshops for women, and more such events are coming up.