After almost three months of being homeless, Turkish villagers living along the fault line of Southeastern Anatolia are juggling the fear of displacement and the desire to rebuild their land. Some still live in front of their damaged houses, feeling stuck between the memories of the past and the uncertainty of the future.
Spread over ten Turkish provinces of industrial areas, little towns and remote villages, the earthquake affected a population of 10 million, among which over 3 million are displaced, around 1 million fled to the west of the country, and approximately 2 million live in camps of tents or containers. Thousands of buildings have been inspected to determine the level of damage. According to the government’s plan, over 200,000 units will be built across the region within one year under the supervision of TOKI, the Turkish public authority for construction, in order to guarantee quake security code standards.
In the province of Gaziantep, a large manufacturing district, little towns such as Nurdağı and Islahiye in the disaster zone are expected to be rebuilt in slightly different locations in order to avoid future risks. It is still uncertain what will happen to the settlements of villagers, farmers and ranchers spread all over the area. As their identity is deeply rooted in the land they have been living on their entire lives, pressure arises due to the possibility of facing eviction.
“For 20 years I’ve been collecting savings to finally buy a house for my family. I wish I spent that money to provide instead a better life for my sons and to pay for their studies,” says Ali, a retired municipality worker. As the ground started shaking on the night of the 6th of February, Idil, Ali’s wife, forgot her glasses while rushing down the stairs. By the time her husband recovered them from the building, her view of the place where they had built their life together was completely changed.
All around collapsed buildings, their house still stands, carrying the X-shaped cracks visible from outside. Their tent is placed just a few meters away in a small camp shared with other 20 families. Ali’s older son, Ahmet, lives in a tent next to his parents with his family. The pharmacy he was working for, the only one nearby, collapsed during the first quake, leaving him jobless. He is now considering farming to support his family.
The quakes also affected survivors' lives in the long-term from an economic and demographic perspective. Like Ahmet, many villagers were made unemployed by the quake, and decided to temporarily move to other cities to seek job opportunities. For Ali and his wife Idil, the sense of community that always characterised their village is the most precious value to live for. The perspective of their neighbours coming back after the emergency is what motivates them to stay, despite the difficult circumstances.
“We don’t know what will happen, sometimes I think the future is just gone," he says. "We were more than 4.000 people here, sharing resources and supporting each other. We had everything we needed. I believe we will soon be forced to move somewhere else. Even so, our culture will not change”.
Mutual help in emergency is something that Ali experienced in 1999, when as a state worker he supported the rescue team during the emergency of the earthquake in Yalova. Now retired, he could never have imagined that something similar could happen to him and his family.
While concerned and left in uncertainty, Ali and Idil have continued to support the community with the little they had left – a 30-year-old washing machine was placed in their garden and made available for the whole community to use. When it broke a few weeks later, a neighbour stepped in, bringing his washing machine close to Ali’s and creating a small communal laundry.
Just 3km from the centre of Nurdağı, in small hidden villages nearby, there is still hope for the land to give its fruits.
Roads were inaccessible for days before rescue teams could reach the land of farmers where Dordu and Şerife live. The couple is now afraid to enter their damaged house, where shattered glass on the kitchen floor remains untouched. Their new accommodation is a warm tent carefully tied up, where a small sofa recovered from the damaged house helps to resembles a feeling of home. What does not fit inside – a fridge, some big pans and kitchen items – is placed outside just next to their car. Dordu has been travelling in cities around Turkiye for 15 years, working in tunnel construction fields and saving six months of the year to cultivate the land with his wife and sons.
“I feel sad for those who have now left our village and their olives trees, because our land is the most precious thing we have," says Şerife. "These gardens are the heart of the genuine goods of Anatolia region. Tomatoes, eggplants, olives, oil, we make everything on our own. We are not producing now, but we will start back again soon. Cultivating the land is what gives meaning to our live."
Behind their tent, the house Dordu had built for his older son leans obliquely towards the olive trees. With the second shock, the rooms completely collapsed in on themselves. “I dedicated two years to building a house for my son and his family, knowing they would have lived close to us and that our nephews would have grown up in the same garden their father did," Dordu says. "Together we chose the furniture and bought everything needed for the future. Instead, that night I had to excavate a tunnel between the rubbles to rescue my family out of a nightmare."
Loss and sorrow have hit on Dordu and Şerife’s family in the past, when one of their four sons passed away in Syria while serving as a soldier in 2012. As the schools remain closed, their nephews continue their education 600km away in the city of Samsun.
Along the countryside road from Nurdağı to Islahiye, few buildings still stand. Scattered tents are placed next to gas stations surrounded by mountains and wide cultivated fields.
In this area, tiny outposts of villagers established their community on the hills, often in remote locations, breeding sheep and goats and selling their products in nearby towns. As inhabitants evacuated the valley of Fevzipaşa after the quake, those who refuse to let go of their tradition of farming remain on the peak of the hill.
“I lost everything, but I can’t leave. I feel like I can’t breathe in cities”, says Suleiman, a farmer and father of three. Couples and families from other villages and cities used to come here over the weekends to enjoy the view of the valley. All my beautiful memories are in this corner of the mountain, and if I can’t live in a beautiful place there is no point to life”.
Suleiman’s house collapsed on the night of the 6th February. For hours the farmer tried to rescue his wife Dilek and their 16-year-old daughter Songül from the rubble. In front of the collapsed building, waiting to know if their mother and sister were still alive, were also Zeynep and Aysel. While Dilek and Songül survived, nothing could be done for their neighbours, who lost their lives in the same night, leaving their daughter Ayşe alone. Even though the 21-year-old now stays in a container and Suleiman and Dilek’s family in a tent, the neighbours still live next to each other as they used to.
Sitting in the tent with Songül, Zeynep and Aysel, Ayşe tries the ready-made yogurt and cheese. Sharing food, a common gesture of kindness within the community, is one of the few moments bringing glimpses of normality. However, the situation is still far from how it used to be. “We don’t have enough animals for producing as much as before, with less cheese and yogurt to sell we will have to arrange our expenses differently,” says Suleiman. While in a rush to rescue his wife and daughter, his animals were under the smashed stall and only 30 sheep out of 200 survived.
“The municipality guarantees that another house will be built for all of us, but we have no idea how long we will have to wait, and we don’t know where our new home will be,” says Dilek. “We don’t have dreams anymore.”
Despite the general tendency among young Turks to leave the villages for the cities, Zeynep, Aysel and Songul are determined to become a sports teacher, a family doctor and a fashion designer for their village. “I was born and raised here, and there is no other place I want my life to be”, Aysel says.
For now, they are attending their classes in the school tent placed down the valley, where volunteers from all around the country provide daily lectures for high school pupils. “It is difficult to concentrate on studying now, but I do care about my future,” points out Aysel. “We don’t know how, we don’t know when, but things will get better soon”.