City of Van in eastern Turkey, struck by two deadly earthquakes in October and November, slowly returns to normality. Political arguments obstruct the recovery, keeping schools closed and buildings in shatters. 4th December 2011
In earthquake that struck the province of Van on October 23rd over 600 people lost their lifes. In an aftershock on November 9th further 40 people perished, including foreign aid worker. Estimated 60 thousand people were left homeless after few thousand buildings collapsed, majority of them in cities of Van and Ercis. Among the destroyed buildings was a centrally located Bayram Hotel in Van, where many journalists and aid workers were stationed.
The city, once a capital of an Urartu empire and renowned for its beautiful location, has lost its splendour long time ago. Now a modern, uncharacteristic city, located at the shores of salt eponymous lake in the most seismically active region of Turkey is suffering both from the nature and from the complexities of national politics.
Almost a month after the second quake city is still abound with tents and temporary shelters, most of them provided by the UN Refugee Agency and the Turkish Red Crescent. Despite promises, political struggles between the Kurdish majority in this region and the central government obstruct reconstruction of the city.
Immediately after the first earthquake many foreign governments and aid agencies offered support. The Turkish government, led by Mr. Recep Tayyip Erdogan from the Islamic AK party, initially rejected it. As the political pressure mounted relief aid was accepted, including that of a now estranged former ally Israel, but the pro-Kurdish party BDP accuses the government of mishandling the situation.
'We do not trust the government to provide the aid, so we only donated to the BDP's relief fund', tells me Ruhan, a Kurd from near Van, now living in Istanbul. 'It is convenient for the government to do nothing, as the blame will fall on the Kurdish city mayor', he adds.
Schools in Van have not be re-opened yet and progress in re-settling people back to their homes is very slow. Many choose to stay in tents or portable containers not because their original housing has collapsed, but out of fear of next aftershocks. And they do happen frequently, although their strength is now much below danger threshold.
Political haggling in Van, although with painful consequences for a large share of the city's population, is but one symptom of an intensified struggle between Turks and Kurds. Turkish army bombs Kurdish settlements believed to be bases of PKK, left-wing Kurdish nationalist organisation labeled terrorist by the EU and the US, both in Eastern Turkey and in Northern Iraq. Reports surface about civilians being killed. In return, mountainous terrain not far from Van burstles with gunshots and explosions after the sunset, reportedly coming from the PKK guerillas' encampments.
Among political turmoil in Van only one is certain. Had the response to the earthquake been more orchestrated and less politicised, the fate of ordinary citizens of Van and the province, be it Turks or Kurds, would have been much better now. And that does not stop with the natural disaster, as years of neglect and denial have left the Kurds from Eastern Turkey disilussioned, impoverished and heated up.