Earthquake in Turkey

Living on Memory

Survival Almost Too Grim to Bear


Monday, August 30, 1999

By Hugo Kugiya, Staff Correspondent

DERINCE, TURKEY — The son honored his mother’s request to save the tea kettles, the steel cooking pots and the silver serving platter, all bent into liquid shapes, twisted beyond usefulness.

Look at these,” said Ali Gunhan, carefully holding some of what he could recover from his father’s destroyed apartment building. “You can’t use these anymore. But my mother, she wants these things. I don’t want to hurt her feelings. Maybe she will keep them for a little while, then she will throw them away.” Almost two weeks after an earthquake destroyed or damaged most of his boyhood village, Gunhan is grateful for even the simplest of profitable assignments.

He also found unbroken some bright orange dishes made of glass, sunglasses, a candle holder and a nearly complete set of china, loading them into a cardboard box. He left behind what clothing he found, belonging to his dead father. Not knowing what to do with them, he burned them.

No one is going to use them,” he said.

Most of Derince’s residents are homeless, living without humor, guided by only a vague sense of purpose. The urgent euphoria of having survived has been replaced by boredom, a weariness caused by a loss of sleep, and an agonizing uncertainty at what awaits them in the coming months.

We will stay in our tents for a few more weeks,” Gunhan said. “Then, I don’t know. Nobody knows.” Turkey has made a national mission of rebuilding the towns felled by earthquakes. Taxes on cellular phones, cigarettes and fuel have been proposed, as have encampments of temporary bungalows. But confidence in the government is flimsy.

Even the thousands of canvas tents provided by the Red Crescent have been met with objections that they did not stand up well to the rain that fell throughout the week.

Gunhan plans to stay with his family for two, maybe three more weeks, before returning to Dix Hills, where he runs a small business and lives alone in a two-​​bedroom apartment. His family will need his income.

They had been counting on the apartment Salim Gunhan was building, the one he died in. He had gone to spend the night in the nearly completed five-​​story structure, which he owned, only four hours before the earthquake struck. He and four other family members were to have moved in last week. Rent from the other apartment units was to provide the family with income. Now it has none. Ali’s brothers are construction workers, but they have no work.

I hope it will be OK, but I don’t think so,” Ali said. “It’s going to be hard.

But we will try. I heard the government has started already to inspect the buildings. They will tell us if it is safe to live in our house. I have not heard any promises, but they say they will come.” The Gunhans’ home survived the earthquake with barely a crack, but the family cooks, eats and sleeps in three plastic-​​covered tents across the road from the house. They dare to go inside for only a few minutes at a time, and only in pairs. Alone, they are too afraid to enter. Only Ali is brave enough to do this.

I wasn’t here to feel the earthquake,” he said. “So I am not as afraid.” The family, for now, is content to live outside, sleeping 10 to 18 per tent.

Gunhan’s female relatives cook all meals on a propane burner. They boil potatoes, rice and wheat, and they heat canned vegetables and soup.

We feel like gypsies with no place to live,” said his aunt Nedime Gunhan. “Of course, it’s very difficult.” The family is luckier than most, with at least a structure in which to house their possessions. They have a telephone, running water (which they can use only for washing and bathing), a bathroom, and electricity to run a refrigerator and a television.

Those with no proper shelter moved into the Red Crescent tent camp in nearby Korfez. Another camp is being built by a private organization from Singapore in a pasture near Derince’s cemetery. It stands mostly empty because tents have not arrived, even as a latrine and an outdoor kitchen stand ready.

We don’t have any idea when we’re supposed to get tents or how many we’ll have,” said Steve Findlay, an American overseeing the camp. “We’re hoping to put up about 200 tents.” He hopes they arrive in time for them to be useful.

The town government is similarly overwhelmed. Mustafa Mollaoglu, a member of the local parliament, said the country’s interior ministry has ordered inspections of all surviving buildings but does not know when they will be completed. He guessed it may take up to three months, when winter typically begins here. He does not know for sure what the homeless will do when it becomes too cold to sleep outside.

The men of the village no longer spend their days digging for bodies. That stopped when the big machines arrived to clear away the debris. Families have buried all the dead they expect to find. Many were placed in the ground hastily in a cemetery high above the village. Away from the established gravestones is a field of saffron-​​tinted dirt pocked by mounds of varying lengths and heights.

The freshly buried are marked by simple wooden stakes, their names written in pencil. There was little time to dig a proper grave, so late into last week, the smell rose again. The 60 or 70 bodies are buried nearly side by side, in some cases on top of one another.

Gunhan’s father is not among them. The family has a small plot where Salim Gunhan was buried next to his parents, Halim and Agca. When the family will install a gravestone for Salim Gunhan, Ali doesn’t know.

For the village down the hill from the cemetery, life goes on, if only in the literal sense of the word.

The commercial center of Derince has been largely swept clear of debris from fallen buildings. Smashed cars have been taken away. Most of the streets are passable. In a barbershop across from the former town hall (it has been condemmed and will be destroyed),the two chairs are occupied. It is one of the few businesses that are open. Nearby, the supermarket is doing a steady trickle of business. It was once a restaurant owned by Ali Gunhan. He cooked and sang during dinner, a talent that made him a friend to the mayor and other city officials who often ate there. The restaurant was a success, but his dream, he said, was always to live in America. He received a visa 10 years ago, moving to Brooklyn, where he was a cook in a kosher restaurant.

Now his livlihood in America is the key to his family’s recovery.

Unsmiling, Gunhan watched cartoons late into Friday morning. He took them in like medicine, grateful for it if not enjoying it.

All the television stations show nothing but earthquake, earthquake, earthquake,” Gunhan said. “And the stations, they show the same thing over and over.” His appetite returned later that day for the first time in a week. He craved lahmajun, a sort of Turkish pizza, but could not find an open restaurant. More than 320 businesses were destroyed by the earthquake, and many remain closed.

Friday was the last day Gunhan spent at the wreckage of his father’s apartment.

He had excavated all that he was willing to risk his safety for. He tried for an album containing photos of his daughter, but he could not free it from under a broken desk.

I’m scared to dig more,” he said.

Over three days, he turned a hole the size of his foot into a small pit large enough to crawl into. He dug with only the head of a broken shovel, stopping occasionally to pray across the street where men had convened a temporary mosque.

For hours at a time, Ali foraged around the very spot of his father’s death.

The bloodstained bricks were proof of that.

From the wreckage, Ali recreated his father’s failed escape. Salim fled through the bedroom door and became pinned in the hallway, just a few feet from his bed and the chair he had placed his trousers on. Had he gone for the window instead, he might have survived, Ali said, pointing to a large air pocket nearby.

Ali found legal papers indicating Salim Gunhan as the owner of the property. He also found a list of materials used in the construction and blueprints.

His father’s telephone was undamaged, still connected to its cord. He remembered trying to call his father from New York before he knew what had become of him.

It was ringing,” Ali said. “It just kept ringing.” Near the phone, Ali found a calendar, each page corresponding to a day. His meticulous father had tended to the calendar every day. It was not so much as torn. The last day showing was the day Ali expected to see: Aug. 17, 1999.

NOTE: This article was reprinted in the 2000 edition of “Best Newspaper Writing” by The Poynter Institute for Media Studies.



Broken Dreams Amid the Ruins

Quake shatters family on eve of wedding


Friday, August 27, 1999

By Hugo Kugiya, Staff Correspondent

GOLCUK, TURKEYFatma Demir was ready to die. She said so, certain of her choice if not what it meant. Poor, uneducated and young, and stuck in a losing negotiation, she had nothing to offer except her life.

She wanted one thing. To marry the man she loved. If she could not, she would rather kill herself, she told her parents.

For more than three months, her father could not be moved, opposed to the union between his Turkish daughter and the Kurdish boy she had fallen so deeply in love with. The Kurds, although millions of them live among Turks, are outcasts in Turkey.

But her mother softened and conspired to play upon her husband’s sense of guilt. Finally, he agreed to the marriage, but demanded it be expedited. So the Demir family hastily set a date: Tuesday, Aug. 17, 1999.

One day before the wedding, the five members of Fatma’s immediate family were joined at her parents’ apartment by 11 relatives, most of them related to her father, Mustafa Demir. He and his wife, Sevda, had three children: Ramzan, 20, Fatma, 18, and Samanur, 2. That night, the men toasted and drank while the women ate and danced and dabbed their foreheads with the red mark of henna, a potent dye used in Muslim wedding ceremonies.

The party, held in Mustafa and Sevda’s third-​​story apartment, still might have been going on when the earth in Golcuk slipped and the thunder from the ground felled the seven-​​story building.

The bride died with her entire family. Of her relatives, only one survived, an in-​​law of her father.

The apartment building is on the corner of a large block obliterated by last week’s earthquake, whose tens of thousands of victims included entire families such as Fatma’s. Two of her uncles, Ali and Salih Topsakal (Sevda’s brothers), and a cousin, Orhan Ozbey, stood Wednesday over the mound of debris that was the Demirs’ home. Beneath them, they presume, are the remains of the one member of the family who could not be found, Samanur, Fatma’s baby sister.

I was here one week before,” Ali said. “Everybody was happy. Now, how can anybody be happy again? Too many people died here, too many people.” The men searched the broken concrete for possessions that might have belonged to the Demirs. They found a copy of the Koran, a toddler’s bright pink sweater, a photo album and a bundle of scarves, wrapped in a plastic bag. The men were sure only that the album did not belong to the family.

They too had been invited to Monday’s party, but stayed home in Izmit. Salih and Orhan were too tired to make the short drive. Ali had no reason, just a feeling, whose origins puzzled him.

Something stopped me from going,” he said, wearing the face of so many in these towns. It is numb and monotonous in its expression. It is a face that no longer recognizes life.

Had he gone, had the others gone, many more would have died. They all have wives and three children each. It is customary for hosts to bunk wedding guests, if not in their home, then in the homes of neighbors.

The relatives who survived the Demirs cannot find the bridegroom. Salih and Orhan knocked on doors in Golcuk, looking for clues to his fate. Orhan has an uncle, who has a friend, who once worked with the groom. But the knock went unanswered. A man walking by said the house had been empty for days.

They know only that the groom was not at the wedding party because the night before the wedding the couple would not have been together. His was not among the bodies found at the building. He almost certainly returned to the apartment he shared with his bride-​​to-​​be, a demonstration of great defiance in traditional Muslim culture. The lovers kept an apartment by the sea, Ali said, an area that was seriously damaged and remains largely underwater. Bodies in that area, if his is one, are difficult to recover. Of the more than 12,000 known victims of the earthquake, so many more are still buried beneath buildings.

The groom’s name is unknown to the bride’s family, because it was until very recently a source of shame and therefore a secret. Ali said he guessed the groom survived, but had no reason for his guess. In a place where so many names and faces go unclaimed, the groom’s story is typical.

Turkey’s newspapers ran hundreds of photographs of missing people this week, a gesture to the families who have no information and carry hope that a relative might be orphaned somewhere in a tent encampment or a field hospital. It is reality that most of these faces will not turn up alive.

Orhan spoke with Fatma four months ago about the man she loved. If she mentioned his name, he has forgotten.

She said she loves him so much,” Orhan said. “If they can’t get married, she was going to kill herself.” For Kurds, to live among Turks is to never be one. Most Kurds, a displaced people with no country of their own, live in southeast Turkey but many live in the cities to the north and west, where they are widely discriminated against.

Until the earthquake, the issue of Kurdish separatism was the nation’s largest preoccupation. Militant Kurds have taken to arms in demanding their own piece of Turkey.

The politics meant little to the lovers, who met at the pastry shop where Fatma worked. He worked, Ali seemed to remember, in a cafe.

Many traditional Muslim marriages are arranged between families, which meet over tea and discuss the couple’s compatibility and agree upon a gift of money, given by the groom’s family to the bride’s. But Fatma, who wore the traditional coverings of a Muslim woman, had found love for herself.

When her parents did not approve, she “escaped.” The term is used in the rare instances in which a young Muslim woman flees her family home in the cover of night in order to be with a man the family does not approve of. The Demirs, distant relatives of Ali Gunhan, a Dix Hills man whose father perished in the quake, are typical of families in moving to the urban areas of Turkey, near Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. Most come from the east where they were likely farmers. The Demirs came from Mus in 1976.

Mustafa Demir drove trucks on long trips between Turkey and Germany. Fatma attended grade school but dropped out to work. She had found love, but likely faced a life of toil raising many children, a tradition that is encouraged among Muslim families.

Most of the towns tumbled by the earthquake, although within 60 miles of cosmopolitan Istanbul, are working-​​class villages. Golcuk, like Izmit across the Marmara Sea, is built onto the narrow pedestal of flat land between the sea and the mountains that flank it at its eastern tip.

The soil is bright, almost orange, and gritty. Out of the soil, workers make clay blocks which are used in the walls of buildings. The vegetation is drab and grows low. Above Golcuk in the hills, wealthier citizens build villas with views of the water. To the west in Cinarcik, professionals from Istanbul keep summer homes.

Golcuk, although located in a beautiful natural setting, facing an indigo sea, lives a plain existence. Dominated by the military base, its homes are affordable to the immigrants from the east, most of whom work in factories or in the service industry which caters to the military stationed here.

The two-​​lane road through Golcuk is peppered with gas stations, masonry yards, and truck dealerships. The town’s older buildings are situated near the water.

Storefronts here are built into the bottom floors of mostly dingy apartment buildings. Sinewy, cobblestone streets are barely wide enough for two cars to pass.

The new 5-​​, 6– and 7-​​story apartments are a recent luxury for Golcuk, a luxury made possible by the filling in of swamp land and shallow water.

The Demirs lived in such an apartment, with three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a modern kitchen. Most such flats sold quickly for about $ 20,000.

Bayram Dikici lived on the 7th floor of a similar apartment across the street from the Demirs. Listless, squatting beside the wreckage of his building, he said he remembered the Demirs and the day of the party. He had heard there was to be a wedding. Looking out that evening, he remembered many cars parking outside the Demirs’ apartment.

The same night, his wife and three daughters died in the earthquake. One daughter, Gulsum, was about Fatma’s age. He was able to pull out only his wife, Belkis, who died on the way to the hospital from loss of blood.

In the past nine days, he said, he has slept nine hours.

Whenever I go to sleep, I remember everything,” he said. “I start to see faces in my sleep, so I can’t sleep. I know I am in shock. Everybody is.” No one was there that night to call out Fatma’s name or the names of anyone in her family. Ali Topsakal said he heard 10 people survived, all of them from the top floor, which landed on top of the pile.

During the night of celebration, the night before the wedding, the hands of Muslim women are stained with red henna. The stains last for weeks. The women stain their hands and foreheads, Muslims say, to remember the wedding.




Wave of Disaster

A neighborhood becomes a bayou


Monday, August 23, 1999

By Hugo Kugiya, Staff Correspondent

GOLCUK, TURKEY - The trunks and backs of concrete buildings rendered into immeasurable waste were crudely assembled to good use yesterday near what once was a waterfront park. For the past six days it has been an underwater park.

A bulldozer, alone and frantic in its important work, pushed and scraped building rubble into high mounds, improvising a dam against the invading waters of the Marmara Sea. As if the unsteady earth were not menace enough, it gained an ally.

Residents confirmed that the quake set into motion a giant wave, which an eyewitness said was “as high as a building,” perhaps more than 100 feet high when it crested. But instead of receding, the water has made a bayou out of this quarter of Golcuk, which looks as if the sea level has risen 10 to 20 feet.

Like much of the shoreline in Golcuk, this part of the town once belonged to the Marmara Sea. About 20 years ago, engineers filled it in to create land.

Residents theorized that the earthquake, which seems to have been most potent in Golcuk, further settled the man-​​made earth, allowing the Marmara to consume it.

The road in front of the town’s athletic stadium now runs into the sea, its factory-​​cobbled, concrete pavers disappearing into the brown, stagnant water.

About 100 yards from the water’s edge are a ferris wheel and a sign marking the entrance to a public pool. The bottom of the ferris wheel is submerged. About 200 yards away, the top of a streetlight and several treetops break the surface of the water. The waterline falls short of the soccer field, but a shallow pond remains at midfield, a footprint left by the giant wave.

The wave took two men who were fishing and washed them all the way to the soccer field,” said Mehmet Akdemir, pointing to the field which normally sits about 300 yards from the sea. “The wave I saw looked 40 or 50 meters high. It was a wall of water.” The men survived the wave, Akdemir said. But many were devoured by the water, which unleashed its indifference on a park frequented by locals on summer nights.

The wave also struck apartment buildings near the park, leaving one looking like a sinking ship listing sharply to one side.

Divers sent by the government and by anguished families probed under the waters and retrieved the bodies of 150 victims, state radio said yesterday.

The waterfront tragedy added another dimension to the catastrophe that enveloped this industrial town of about 60,000 people. By yesterday, the town’s confirmed death toll had climbed past 1,000; surveying the devastastion, municipal officials feared the death toll could eventually reach 15,000 — nearly one in four inhabitants.

Farther inland, other apartment buildings are severely flooded. Brothers Sinan and Dogan Kucuk attempted to stave the waters by laying dirt around their ground-​​floor unit. But the shin-​​deep waters quickly exceeded their ability to shovel.

The next day, they realized the water was rising. Describing its current depth, Dogan placed his hands above his waist.

Funneled at the western end into the Aegean Sea, and funneled at the east into the Black Sea, the Marmara is nearly an enclosed body of water and especially calm where it extends to a narrow tip and touches Golcuk, a town built into the lap of this hilly region.

The sea said, ‘That’s enough,’” said a middle-​​aged man who remembered the untouched sea of his boyhood. “The sea is saying, ‘You can’t take any more. I’m going to take it back.’ ”