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After quake, rebuilding community remains biggest challenge for Turkey's Kurds

Officials are moving quickly to rebuild the cities and towns destroyed in last year's earthquake in eastern Turkey, but they can't restore the Kurds' fractured family and community ties.

By Jane TeelingContributor / July 27, 2012

The city of Van, eastern Turkey, is undergoing major reconstruction, and many buildings like this one photographed on July 2, await demolition or repair. Ten months after a pair of earthquakes devastated Turkey's Lake Van region, its ethnic Kurdish survivors have been housed in 40 container cities with 30,000 temporary trailers. The government is building over 15,000 new housing units for the homeless.

Jane Teeling

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Van, Turkey

The first earthquake in eastern Turkey’s Lake Van region last October lasted only 40 seconds. The second earthquake, three weeks later, was even shorter. 

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But nine months on, people here are still recovering from the natural disaster that, in just one minute, wrecked their cities, flattened their villages, and upended their lifestyles. 

Now the city of Van has the look and feel of a construction site. Earthmovers and hydraulic drills reshape the landscape, churning up pervasive clouds of dust. Pedestrians pick their way over crumbling sidewalks and past hollowed out buildings awaiting demolition or repair.

The government’s rebuilding efforts are ambitious and well under way, but the needs of more than 60,000 people who have been left homeless extend far beyond the crushed buildings and piles of rubble, say local activists who work with the survivors. The uncertainty of their future has put a strain on daily existence for these mostly ethnic Kurds and taken a psychological toll. 

IN PICTURES – Turkey earthquake 

The upheavals and devastation caused by the earthquake in Van are nothing new. Some of the earthquake survivors had only just regrouped after a war between the Turkish military and Kurdish guerillas in the 1990s that killed 40,000 people and displaced at least 1 million.

“This is not our first trauma. Our first trauma was the war,” says Aylin Celik, a sociologist who works with the Van Women’s Association, or VAKAD. “We can recover after the trauma of the earthquake because we are used to it. We can live with change.”

Many earthquake victims will soon have new government-built homes. But the emotional stress of leaving their tight-knit communities has created a number of social problems, particularly for women, who are finding their roles in the home drastically changed. “These women tell us that, for them, the earthquake was a defining moment," says Ms. Celik.

Recognizing the psychological trauma, the Turkish government dispatched 200 psychiatrists and social workers to villages and container cities soon after the earthquake. These specialists have since treated 44,627 families and 276,687 people, according to Van’s disaster and emergency management office.

Re-imagining the home and family

The earthquakes came at the onset of the coldest winter in 20 years, making the tents the government and relief organizations supplied for those left homeless inadequate. By February, most of the survivors were moved to sturdier trailers grouped into about 40 homogenous “container cities” that hug dusty highways around Van and Ercis, site of the first quake. Nearly 30,000 families wait for permanent housing, some living seven or more in each 20-square-meter container.

While the trailers are an upgrade from the drafty tents, life in container cities is not easy. Wives and mothers in particular have found it difficult to adjust to the cramped quarters and the sprawling, anonymous neighborhoods.

“Before the earthquake, women knew and understood the people they lived with,” says Münevver Ölmez of VAKAD, who counsels women inside the camps.

They are finding it hard to connect with hundreds of new neighbors, she says. Ingrained cultural mores and local customs are their biggest hindrance. “If you want to meet someone, everyone wonders, ‘Who is she? Why is she talking to that person?’ ”

Women have also struggled to gain some control over their domestic space. Without proper ovens, they can no longer bake bread at home. Now they must ask their husbands for money to buy it at the store, which requires them to spend more time outside the home than normal. New, unorthodox tasks like these have led to domestic disputes.

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