Aid to rebuild beyond reach of Turkey's poorest

A government plan to build permanent housing leaves thousands of tent city homeless in limbo.

From between the thin sheets of plastic that have served as her walls for the past eight months, Hanje Ceslak watches government trucks roll past the cluster of tents where she lives. The vehicles are loaded with materials to build new homes for the thousands of citizens still homeless after last year's devastating earthquakes.

Yet Mrs. Ceslak knows she will never move into one of these homes because, in the government's eyes, she isn't homeless. Though they lost nearly everything in the Nov. 12 temblor centered in Duzce, Ceslak's family, like many low-income Turks, shared housing with other families before the disaster. To receive aid under the government program, she must prove that her family was the primary resident, something she cannot do.

So Ceslak, along with some 100,000 others of the earthquakes' poorest victims, lives in one of many ramshackle "tent cities" devoid of bathrooms, social services, or a regular supply of food. Now, even these tenuous homes may be razed to make way for permanent housing - housing that, ironically, her poverty prevents her from owning.

"There's nothing like home left," Ceslak says. "It's not like what you see on television. There's no officials coming here to see our situation, no financial help ... only dry food, sometimes some milk, and this tent."

More than half of the buildings in Duzce, a midsize industrial center about two hours east of Istanbul, were destroyed or severely damaged in the magnitude 7.4 earthquake.

On a recent afternoon, citizens shopping downtown stepped carefully among piles of broken concrete and iron girders on their way to rows of mobile units where they waited in line to pay bills or visit lawyers who had moved their demolished offices into the tiny boxes.

Scattered throughout the town are clusters of tents where some 50,000 people live - more than half of Duzce's population. Those established by the Turkish government or foreign relief organizations are recognizable by their rows of heavy rubber tents dotted with white satellite dishes and centered around community centers, where residents can receive psychological counseling and child care. Others consist of corrugated tin siding, plastic sheeting stretched over poles, or the flimsy leftover tents handed out by relief organizations immediately after the quake hit.

Now, private landlords who own the land on which this tent city sits want to use it for permanent housing that will generate rent. Though the government has not yet evicted any tent-city residents, it has threatened to force them out by cutting off electricity and water if necessary.

"The problem is that these people don't get aid, and municipalities get stuck with the bill," says Duzce Mayor Ruhi Kurnaz, sitting in his partially reconstructed office. "But all of our sources of income before the quake, like taxes on water and advertising, are gone now. Still, this is our government, and this is all they can do."

The Turkish government bore heavy criticism for its confused response to the disaster, which left more than 17,000 dead and another 350,000 homeless.

Now that the government has launched its plan to build 7,000 permanent houses throughout the quake zone, citizens can choose a rent subsidy or an $8,000 lump sum to rebuild their homes themselves.

In order to receive the aid, however, recipients must present leases, utility bills, or other documents proving that they actually inhabited a demolished house. Yet according to a survey conducted by the Turkish Human Settlements Association, homeowners make up only 2 percent of the tent population.

Government spokesmen claim the majority of citizens living in tent cities are actually owners of moderately damaged homes who are either afraid to return to them or are siphoning off aid provided by private groups.

"The people who live in the tent cities don't have very serious damage to their houses, and many are given 600 million Turkish lira [$1,000] to mend their house," says Ali Uslanaz, director of the Duzce Crisis Center, which oversees the government housing program. "We don't give them much aid because we want them to either go home or to the large government-owned tent cities."

Aid workers say that's not entirely true.

Rahmi Bostanu remembers how authorities moved survivors of a massive quake in August back into buildings that collapsed in the following tremor. Mr. Bostanu moved his family to a backyard shack after the November quake even though government architects said his house was not severely damaged. They now use the kitchen in the lower level of their house, but sleep outdoors.

Establishing stable housing patterns is vital to rebuilding the economy of shattered towns such as Duzce. Doing so, however, means including citizens in decisionmaking. A reminder of this are the 3,000 government-erected houses that stand empty throughout the earthquake region. Citizens say they were built too far outside towns for them to reach jobs and social services.

"[Housing] is not just a class issue - it's an issue of whether future homeowners will have any input into how and where they will live," says Hayim Beraha of the Human Settlements Association. "Right now no one, neither homeowners in line to receive government housing nor those in the tent cities, have any say in how this housing is developed."

To allay this, the association - a nongovernmental organization (NGO) of architects and city planners funded by the United Methodist Committee on Relief - did a survey on living conditions before and after the quakes. It plans to pass the information on to housing authorities. The group also is negotiating with landowners and municipal governors to provide land and infrastructure for temporary housing where poorer residents can live until permanent housing is found for all.

Another reason NGOs want to ensure that citizen voices are heard is that Turkey is expected to experience as many as four more serious earthquakes in the next 30 years along the North Anatolian Fault, which runs under the Sea of Marmara about 6 miles off Istanbul's coast. If the government continues to ignore the vox populi, analysts say, it may be more than houses that crumble the next time.

Yesterday, an earthquake with a 4.8 magnitude rattled the town of Osmaniye. It was the third mild quake to hit Turkey since May 8.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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