Hundreds of thousands are sheltering in tents, breathing air thick with pollutants unleashed from tombs of rubble, fearful that a new disaster could strike at any moment.
After powerful earthquakes struck southern Turkey, Eylem Sahutoglu and her family endured two weeks of freezing nights under a blue tarpaulin. Then word came from government engineers who had inspected their building: They could return home.
But on Monday night, before they could move back into their house in Hatay Province, the earth began shaking again. Another powerful quake had hit the region.
“My legs went numb,” Ms. Sahutoglu said, recalling how she had fainted in her front yard as the house crumbled at her feet.
Ms. Sahutoglu’s ordeal is emblematic of the plight of thousands of Turks who were preparing to return home — only to be thrown deeper into uncertainty, lurching from one calamity to the next.
Hatay is a tableau of life at extremes, shaped by devastated infrastructure and pressing human need after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck on Feb. 6, followed by a very strong aftershock the same day. The quakes killed more than 43,000 in Turkey and over 5,500 in Syria. Then Monday’s 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck.
Despite the flow of international aid into Turkey, the nearly 1.7 million displaced people in the quake zone face the almost impossible challenge of rebuilding their lives in squalid conditions.
About 750,000 are sheltering in tents, breathing air thick with pollutants unleashed from tombs of rubble as tectonic plates continue to rumble, reminders that a fresh disaster could strike at any moment. The extensive damage to infrastructure is swiftly turning hard-hit communities into petri dishes for disease, according to health care officials and residents.
More than 800,000 people have fled the quake zone since the first earthquake, according to Yunus Sezer, the head of Turkey’s emergency management agency, AFAD. About 350,000 others have been evacuated from the affected zone via trains, planes or buses supplied by the government.
“Even when we are standing still, we feel like we are moving,” said Ms. Sahutoglu’s son, Ahmet, 20. He added that the unpredictability of the aftershocks, coupled with the harsh living environment, had prompted families to vacate land they have owned for generations and to move to coastal cities like Antalya, Mersin or Konya, in central Turkey.
The exodus of residents from Hatay has turned the constellation of historic cities along the Mediterranean into ghost towns.
Thousands of engineers have fanned out across the wrecked areas to assess the safety of buildings left standing, as residents wait in shelters, many too afraid to enter their homes even if they are intact.
Recalling how the two engineers from the Ministry of Urbanization told her family to move back in, Ms. Sahutoglu said, “It was a moment of hope.” But “they were barely here for two minutes,” she added.
The inspectors had briskly hammered chunks of plaster from the walls of the 45-year-old building to reveal the concrete underneath, before deeming it safe.
“They did not even ask me my name — they just told me that the building was strong,” she said.
She decided to trust them.
Her family of 14 was impatient to vacate the crowded tent pitched in the yard, which sits on the main street of Samandag, one of a series of hamlets that dot the coastal road meandering south through the region of Hatay.
Mrs. Sahutoglu began preparing the house for their return: She scrubbed the floors and countertops, which were coated with dust; she washed blankets and laid them on her rooftop to dry; and she sent her son out to collect tomatoes for a warm breakfast the next morning.
“Finally, I felt like I was at home,” she said. But hours later, she heard a familiar rumble from the mountains, and the walls began to shudder. The new quake had struck near Samandag.
When she regained consciousness, the washed blankets were slanted toward her from atop the caved-in ceiling, just as she had left them; the crate of tomatoes, miraculously intact, was perched outside her son’s bedroom door.
“They told us we were safe,” Ms. Sahutoglu said. “Now what can we do — we are back to living with the chickens.”
The Turkish government has been criticized for the slow pace of its recovery effort, which is being overseen by AFAD. It has confronted logistical complexities in removing mountains of debris and identifying safe relocation sites for those displaced.
The Sahutoglus’ house is one of many buildings that crumbled into a desolate moonscape, replacing the spirited main road of ramshackle buildings and storefronts that ran through the district.
“People here love their neighbors,” said Ilknur Sahutoglu, 26, whose home was destroyed on Monday. She sat in her father’s hulking six-wheel truck, contemplating the ruination of the world she once knew. “My childhood was in that house — and now it is gone,” she said, in tears.
Other trucks, ferrying water canisters and food, kicked up dust as they headed south. A throng of private cars, stacked with mattresses, couches and other belongings, moved in the opposite direction.
If she could steal back five minutes to run inside the house when the quake hit, she said, “I would make sure to grab an early photograph of my father and mother,” who died last February.
Since the earthquake, she said, she and her sisters have been pleading with their father to grab a chance at another life.
“He is too attached to this place and all our memories here,” Ms. Sahutoglu said, adding that she worried living conditions had grown untenable.
Most of the water in the district has either stopped running or has turned muddy. Her family’s private well is buried under the rubble of their collapsed home.
“We can’t find enough water to wash our hands and faces,” said Ms. Sahutoglu, who worked as a nurse in the nearby city of Antakya before the hospital was destroyed in the first quake.
“This will be a huge problem here with regard to infections and viruses entering the body,” she said, adding that her sister has bronchitis.
Suleyman Altman, 42, a resident of Konya Province, in central Turkey, who helped organize an aid depot in a storefront in Samandag, said: “Life has turned upside down again. Many people here decided to leave after the second quake.”
Across the street from the Sahutoglus’ home, residents emerged from tents with plastic containers and congregated outside the narrow storefront, where they were served scoops of red soup and vermicelli noodles.
The storefront was evidence of how the crush of disasters can rally communities to come together. But the depot will soon close, said Mr. Altman, who will return north to his district by the end of the week. AFAD will continue to deliver bottled water from across the country to the district. Still, it will not nearly be enough for those who remain, he said.
Joe English, a spokesman for UNICEF, said that “without access to safe drinking water and access to appropriate sanitation, the risk of disease outbreaks soars” in the aftermath of such crises where “we see large numbers of people forced from their homes and living in cramped conditions.”
Big natural disasters like this month’s earthquake can release toxins into the air from soil, homes, industrial-waste sites and other sources, which are inhaled by residents who crowd into emergency shelters. This could breed an array of ailments, according to experts, who say they are increasingly worried about outbreaks of flu and respiratory illnesses in the quake zone.
Doctors at a field hospital of 50 beds in Antakya, about 25 miles north of Samandag, say they have seen an uptick of people with gastrointestinal infections this week.
“Portable water systems have not been entirely set up yet, and access to toilets and sheltering problems are substantial,” said Alpay Azap, a professor of microbiology and infectious diseases at Ankara University, who warned of an increase in bowel infections and skin rashes throughout the disaster zone.
Despite the threat of disease and waning resources to help, some families are refusing to leave.
Two days after their house collapsed, the Sahutoglus sat in the early morning shade of lemon trees in their yard, riddled with rubble. Children pumped brackish water from the earth to wash clothes as Ahmet shaved his father’s beard with thick white foam.
“These trees are older than my children,” Mrs. Sahutoglu said.
They fried potatoes in a blackened pan on burning wood and sat around a plastic table. Breakfast included black olives they had retrieved from the rubble.
“We were born here,” Mrs. Sahutoglu said, “We have grown up here. We will die here.”
Gulsin Harman contributed reporting.
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