Accounts by officials and residents about rescue efforts in Van, which was hit by a powerful earthquake that killed more than 500 on Sunday, are worlds apart, with one version describing quick and adept disaster response and the other suggesting that Turkey has a long way to go in terms of disaster management.
According to survivors' accounts, the fact that many of the survivors in Erciş, the district that was hit worst by the quake, still do not have tents when temperatures outside are freezing clearly shows officials' inability to distribute aid. Millions of people across Turkey sent aid packages through civil society groups, including the Turkish Red Crescent (Kızılay), but many here say they still have not received any winter clothes, blankets, food or any of the other supplies that were sent to Van after the quake.
Local officials, however, paint a completely different picture, claiming that government response has been quick and that it has effectively mobilized its sources at every stage. They assert that the success of the relief campaign has been, in fact, unprecedented in Turkey's disaster history.
The main problem, especially in Erciş, is failure to ensure effective, organized and fair distribution of aid supplies. Even officials agree that distribution, particularly that of tents, has been disorganized.
Late on Thursday, Van's governor was on television, talking to reporters near the rubble of a collapsed building in Erciş and claiming that there was no longer a problem with the distribution of tents in the district. Outside, two minutes later, I came across families, sometimes with as many as six members, crammed into summer tents just trying to keep warm. Most people here cannot go back to their homes, as many buildings have collapsed or were damaged by the quake.
Aftershocks still continue in the town, and the reason so many people, usually relatives or close neighbors, have to cram themselves into a single tent is that they still have not been able to get a tent from Kızılay four days after the earthquake, due to seemingly infinite lines -- sometimes stretching on for two kilometers -- and the chaotic situation in the crisis center and emergency management.
The night I arrived in Erciş rescue teams were everywhere, still trying to pull survivors out of the rubble around the city's main street, where the district governor and mayor's offices and the courthouse are located. Thousands had lined up in front of the district governor's office, which hosts the crisis center, to register to get a tent.
Recent situation in Erciş
However, just outside of the provincial capital, two tent cities have been set up by Kızılay near Lake Van with a population of nearly 1,000 in total. Not far away from the highway that runs to the capital of Van, this place offers food and clothes and can meet many of the quake victims' needs. As I walk among the tents, the faces here look happier and more relaxed than the survivors in Erciş. People say things have improved dramatically since the first two days of rescue efforts after the quake. People here were given heaters on Tuesday night and do not have to worry about the freezing cold.
Mustafa T. (38), who is staying in a Kızılay tent city next to the city stadium, says that the biggest problem in the tent camp is the lack of toilets. Nearly 300 people have to share three toilets in a nearby café. He said the victims were thankful to all those who kept aid supplies coming in from all across the country, adding that more winter clothes were needed.
But when it comes to the city, disorganization still prevailed in terms of distributing aid to people.
Sıddık (60), who asked that his last name not be used, lives in Van's Yolu neighborhood, where residents say no supplies have been delivered. He bought a tent on the black market to take care of his family, which includes his sister-in-law and her 2-week-old baby. The family's house was damaged in the earthquake and now the family of 20 is trying to live together in one tent, which is still wet from rain on Wednesday night.
Kemal Aktaş, who asked that his real name not be released, has been staying with 16 others in a small tent he put up just off the highway. They are making breakfast in the tent, which looks like it will go down any minute. Right next to it, a Kızılay tent has been put up. “Many people were able to get tents, but we could not. The local municipality has been distributing them to its supporters. We need tents. We can't go on like this for very long,” said Aktaş.
Villages in dire situation
Brothers Fadıl and Nadir İmece have so far managed to survive in small nylon tents with their families, but like many others here in Ünseli, a mountain village near Erciş, they are desperate for proper disaster relief tents. There is already snow covering the tops of the nearby mountains, and the villagers know that it will soon start snowing in the village as well.
“About 15 people live here. We made this tent ourselves,” said Davut Baran, another resident who is trying to get by in Ünseli.
I also noticed two Kızılay tents in the village. Two younger residents of the village showed them to me late on Thursday night. One of the young men, who is currently serving in the military in Ankara, said he had to get special permission from his unit to come visit his family in Erciş after the quake. His family also had to try to survive inside a regular nylon tent. When I asked him how some other people were able to get tents, he replied, saying, “They are lucky.”
Clearly, some people can get Kızılay tents, while some cannot, but it is not clear what criteria are used to decide that. The situation is the same in all the villages of Erciş and Muradiye, another district.
Officials blame miscalculations
Kızılay, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and local officials were more likely to blame others for problems with the distribution of tents. “It seems that those who desperately needed tents were not able to get them because they did not want to wait in long lines,” said Kızılay President Ömer Taşlı.
He said Kızılay has been using a more effective method to distribute tents in central Erciş since early on Wednesday. “Several teams were formed to determine the needs of people in the neighborhoods. Our teams visited all the houses in the area and provided them with necessary provisions, particularly tents, which included blankets and other supplies. The teams will reach out to those who were not able to get to places where aid is being distributed by officials. We will finish the whole city tonight,” Taşlı said on Friday.
Taşlı denied claims that some people were given tents first because they are affiliated with the AK Party, saying such “rumors” were common in every disaster, noting that they were untrue. He also dismissed allegations of mismanagement, saying that, by nature, disaster means disorder. “A disaster means a collapse of the system. Chaos and turmoil prevail,” he said.
In response to a question about the criteria Kızılay uses when distributing tents, Taşlı said anybody who asked was given a tent until Thursday, as 10,000 tents had been distributed by then. “But starting [Thursday], people whose homes were damaged will take priority,” he said, noting that Erciş could use 3,000 more tents, but more than that would not be necessary. “People will start going back to their houses over the next 10 days or so, when their fears have died down,” he said and added that 90 percent of the houses in the region were single-storey houses that were not damaged in the quake.
“This was a huge natural disaster rarely seen in this country,” AK Party Van deputy Fatih Çiftçi told Sunday's Zaman. “This was the first time that the country was able to respond so quickly,” he added.
He said the chaotic situation of the first week could be explained by the lack of a centralized system for coordinating efforts, as some civil society organizations chose not to work with the Prime Ministry's Disaster and Emergency Management Directorate (AFAD), and instead delivered supplies using their own means.
“It's true that some vehicles were looted before entering the city on the first day, but distribution efforts have been conducted on a fair basis after that,” he said.