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December 13, 2011, Tuesday

Letter from Van...

Those who have experienced an earthquake of similar proportions are able to best understand the situation of Van’s residents. Many of us lived through the Aug.17, 1999 earthquake of Yalova.

But the current situation faced by earthquake survivors in Van is more difficult than the one we, who felt the 1999 earthquake in Yalova, experienced, as thousands are now living in tents under very trying winter conditions. Unfortunately, we see similar situations unfold after every earthquake. In the first days following a quake, there is always an extraordinary effort to get help through. But as time passes, survivors are left on their own. I recently received a letter from Van describing this very situation. It is my wish that everyone who reads this listens carefully to this voice from Van:

“I am a member of the Van Economic Council.

In the wake of the earthquakes our city experienced on Oct. 23 and Nov. 9, all of Turkey did its best to assist, sending lots of aid to Van. Everyone was united in heart on this front. We really felt like changing the sign that greets visitors to Van to read ‘Population: 73 million.’

We extend our gratitude to everyone who came to our city to share in our grief, from the president to the prime minister, to all the government officials, politicians, all the representatives of civil society organizations, everyone. What we observed was an extraordinary effort to help on a level we had never witnessed before in our history. And as the people of Van, we are aware of this, and we greet the efforts with great gratitude and admiration.

Public sensitivity was at an all time high after the first earthquake we experienced. But just as we thought life was returning to normal, the magnitude 5.6 earthquake we experienced was the one that really destroyed us. At this point, everyone is in tents. Even people whose homes are only a bit damaged are not able to enter their homes. This, after all, is a strong recommendation from experts.

Keeping all of the above in mind, today we see that more than half the population of this city, which is normally around 500,000, has abandoned the city. The governor’s offices have completed their distribution of containers to villages, and are working on the underpinnings for fast-built ‘container towns’ to go up in the city. But in the end, the containers are going to be insufficient for the real needs of the city. As for the working population, they are in a really bad situation, with large swaths of employees simply having left Van, and it is getting more difficult to get the rest to stay around. Most merchants have had their workplaces damaged. And whether or not there is damage, merchants are not really able to do business. No one is shopping. But of course, employers must pay salaries, and must fulfill their various financial obligations. But of course, when all of these problems are actually mentioned out loud, or discussed publicly, there is a sort of public perception that thinks, ‘There was a world of assistance given to Van, are they still not satisfied?’ And this, believe me, makes us very uncomfortable and sad.

Alright, so what else needs to be done?

The most urgent need is the need for shelter. If this problem is figured out quickly, we will be able to keep people from leaving Van. Not only that, the people who did leave will come back quickly. But this is a problem that will be impossible to tackle and fix if our government works on its own. We would like to see containers come in from everyone who can afford to help. The [Social Security Institution] SGK payments need to be paid for one year. Credit received from public and private banks needs to have one more extended year of no interest. When merchants from Van apply for credit, they are asked for liens from outside of Van. And with only a few merchants who are given credit, many of our merchants simply are not able to take advantage of credit opportunities. This whole process must be made easier. The upper limit allowed by the [Small and Medium Industry Development Organization] KOSGEB is TL100,000 credit, and this is very little for many merchants. We have companies that employ 50, 100, 200, 400 workers. In order for these companies to keep up the same level of employment rates, there is a need for low interest credit loans of high amounts that can be paid over five years with two years of no payment at first. Van is being rebuilt again. The [Housing Development Administration of Turkey] TOKİ is set to build around 100,000 homes in Van. When these homes are being built, both the materials and the labor need to be obtained from Van. What’s more, endowments with fair conditions need to be given to Van’s businessmen first. If these precautions are not taken, the social earthquake that will inevitably fall fast on the heels of the physical earthquake will take a very high toll on Turkey. And any costs that are added to the general budget by these precautions will be far outweighed by the outcome if they are not taken. In the name of the people of Van, we would like to make our voices heard through you in the hope that the officials in question take heed.

Thank you for your time,

Ali Çiçeksay, head of the Board of the Van Active Industrialists and Businessmen Foundation.”

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