A year in the aftermath of Turkey’s earthquake – a photo essay / THE GUARDIAN

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Photographer David Lombeida has spent the last 12 months documenting five families as they recover from the immediate devastation of the 7.8 magnitude earthquake in the south of the country and the harsh realities of rebuilding their lives today.

February 4, 2024, The Guardian. To get access the photos, click here.

The living and the dead will soon be side by side on the outskirts of Antakya, where new government housing under construction to house the survivors of last year’s deadly earthquakes overlooks graveyards for those who perished.

“No one can bring back what was lost, as we lost everything,” said İsa Akbaba, who lost seven members of his extended family including his elder sister, Sıdıka, and his younger brother, Musa, during a visit to the cemetary.

Tuesday 6 February will mark a year since twin deadly earthquakes destroyed their homes in Turkey’s southernmost province, wrenching apart buildings as much of Antakya was destroyed. İsa’s mother, Suat Akbaba, was trapped under layers of debris for hours before she was eventually rescued.

Sıdıka and Musa were not so lucky. They are two among the 50,783 people estimated to have died in southern Turkey.

« Why my children and not me? Take my soul, not my sons and daughters. » Suat Akbaba.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan travelled to the earthquake zone soon after the initial destruction, his sleek presidential sedan weaving among wreckage that many blamed on corruption within Turkey’s two-decade construction boom, a hallmark of his rule.

Erdoğan was quick to promise his citizens solutions to the damage, which spanned an area larger than the size of Belgium and the Netherlands combined and cost the country almost 10% of its GDP, according to a parliamentary inquiry. 

“Our citizens should not worry. We will never allow for them to remain unsheltered,” he told the public during his visit to the quake zone, even as many, like the Akbabas, set up camp outside.

Erdoğan also promised reconstruction at breakneck speed, even as results appeared remote when towering piles of rubble covered swaths of the country.

“We will rebuild these buildings within one year and will hand them back to citizens,” he said, just four days after the earthquakes struck.

For months after the quakes, the grinding of machinery echoed across much of Turkey’s south-east, as workers tore down thousands of former homes and offices across the earthquake zone. Many, like the Akbabas, lived among the rubble. In other places, near the epicentre of the quakes – often those more closely associated with support for Erdoğan – government workers broke ground on new buildings a month after the earthquakes struck.

Because the Akbabas rented their former apartment, they will not be eligible for any of the 319,000 new homes that the president promised will be handed over to citizens.

Like many across Antakya, they are surveilling the empty lots that used to be their neighbourhood and waiting for private reconstruction, doubtful that they will be able to find somewhere they can afford to live amid a nationwide housing crisis and rising inflation.

The Akbabas have also grown used to mourning. Well into the summer months after the earthquake, they gathered next to the remains of their destroyed apartment block, grateful to be together as a family even as they lived among mounds of rubble and cement dust in a makeshift camp. 

Local officials abruptly expelled them from the site in November, dispersing the family into container camps scattered around Antakya’s outskirts. The site of their former building is now a pit filled with construction equipment, ready to build a new apartment building that others could live in.

The Akbabas miss their former apartment, part of the daily suffering wrought by the earthquakes. “Our pain is still fresh,” said İsa.

« The aim of this reconstruction project is to push poor people out of town » Sedat Kadı

Kenan Kadı, his wife, Gamze, and their three children lived in their car in Antakya immediately after the earthquake. Kenan and Gamze would stay up all night so their children – Mehmet, Ela and one-year-old Cemre – could sleep in the car.

Six months on, the family moved to their summer home in Arsuz on the coast where they also accommodated some friends who were displaced from the earthquake. Kenan and his brother Sedat run a business making marble gravestones and countertops at the edge of Antakya. Kenan works during the week and then drives to the coast at weekends to spend time with his family.

The vision for Antakya’s renewal, a masterplan designed by a consortium of international architectural firms spearheaded by Britain’s Foster + Partners, offers something markedly different from the city’s past.

Sedat Kadı was skeptical about the rebuilding efforts, and neither he nor his brother said they had any interest in buying one of the new apartments despite the offer of government loans.

“The aim of this reconstruction project is to push poor people out of town,” he said. “If the point is to rebuild the centre for the rich and to leave the poor aside, it would be better not to do it at all.”

For Kenan and his brother Sedat, the business of making gravestones and new construction meant the earthquake has created a morbid business opportunity, although they say they are primarily focused on being grateful to be alive. 

A few months after the earthquakes decimated Antakya, they noticed a sudden overwhelming demand for gravestones. The family business went from manufacturing a couple a week to an estimated four each day, and the deluge of orders continues even as the anniversary approached.

“The earthquake became a reason to work,” he said ruefully. “We don’t know what to pray for: the souls of the dead, more business, or just to be thankful that we’re alive.”

Although the Kadıs work in construction, they were unconvinced by the new construction on the edge of Antakya, a pilot project offering ringed by posters of gleaming new apartment buildings with offers of government-subsided loans.

« The earthquake didn’t kill us, but this smell will » Nazire Koyunlu.

The Koyunlu family lived in the small village of Tevekkeli outside the city of Kahramanmaraş. Their home completely collapsed, but Ismael, his wife, Nazire, and their daughter Berivan were able to escape in time.

A month after the earthquake, the family were living in a shed next to their former home after retrieving all the belongings that they could from the rubble.

Six months later the family were still living in the shed. They built a deck outside for sleeping, as temperatures can reach over 40C. An excavator removed the rubble of their home, leaving an empty plot.

Erdoğan promised his citizens 319,000 new homes would be delivered by February, with the same amount constructed and supplied the following year.

A spokesperson for the Turkish presidency said in late January that “the construction of a total of 307,000 houses has started. The delivery of a total of 46,000 houses … has started gradually.”

« The difference between the people who died is that they are buried under the soil and we are not, though we have died too ». Yusuf Güneş.

Yusuf Sr, his wife, Fatma, and their children were at home in the city of Kahramanmaraş when the earthquake struck. The entrance to the house became blocked by falling debris but they were able to escape. They didn’t receive any aid for weeks, and so bought their own tarpaulin, which they used to build a shelter outside their home. At one point, 17 members of Fatma’s extended family were living in the shelter.

Six months later the government provided the family with a container, but it was too small for all of them to inhabit. It would have also been impossible for Yusuf Sr to run his scrap business from the container city. When asking Yusuf Sr if things have improved, he replied: “The last time you came here we had hope: nowadays we don’t even have that.”

Their youngest son, Berat, 11, is blind. His family cannot afford the medication that he needs. Three years ago, his mother, Fatma, was diagnosed with leukaemia, which has recently progressed to stage four. She had been undergoing state-provided chemotherapy for more than two years. After the treatment she was given her two medicines, which she was told would be free for earthquake victims. However, they turned out to cost over €1,000, which the family also couldn’t afford.

« The fault line is still alive and experts say there could be another ». Engin Dolaş.

Engin, his wife, Zeriban, and their newborn daughter Ismihan were at home in Adıyaman when the earthquake hit. After their apartment received substantial structural damage, Engin and his family left the city for the village of Aydınoluk, where he grew up. They shared a communal tent there with 20 family members.

Across Antakya, posters showing restoration line streets where former ancient mosques, bathhouses and covered markets stood. Some show images of reconstruction that are different in character to what previously stood in the city, a centre of multiculturalism for thousands of years.

For many of Antakya’s residents, the reconstruction is unable to bring back the communities who once made their city unique, many of whom are now dispersed throughout the country or buried in the graveyards that dot its outskirts.At the entrance to Antakya, surrounded by areas now cleared of rubble, the clock tower remains stuck on the time the earthquakes struck: Just after 4am on 6 February, when everything changed for the city, and for the entire country.

All photographs by David Lombeida; words by Ruth Michaelson and David Lombeida with assistance from Ayça Aldatmaz; picture editing and design by Jim Powell

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