An estimated 200,000 deserted the city following the magnitude 7.2 earthquake that struck on Oct. 23, 2011, and killed nearly 600.
In a second earthquake that followed two weeks later, 30 others were killed. Although three months have passed, those who stayed are still facing life-threatening conditions in the trying weather conditions: freezing temperatures and incessant snowfall.
Currently, 55,000 people are still living in tents, some of which were supplied in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake by the Turkish Red Crescent (Kızılay). Some 100,000 people have been moved to about 25,000 prefabricated container homes that have been supplied to the city, but the failure to move everyone to container homes has been costly: Over the past three months, nine people died in fires caused by heaters inside tents, while 27 were injured.
In a statement on the shelter problem still persisting in Van, Governor Münir Karaloğlu said officials were working without interruption to bring new container homes to the city. At the end of the project, Van will have 29 container-home towns for the survivors. “Container homes manufactured in various factories across the country have been brought to Van on 12,500 trucks. We had 22,000 survivors in 14 tent cities. Now, we have 8,200 citizens living in tents. After we move these people to container homes, we will keep two tent cities open as a precautionary measure. We will have about 160,000 people residing in our container-home cities once they are completed.” The 8,200 people living in Red Crescent tents might soon move out. But more than 47,000 are trying to survive in tents they put up on their own. These people will not be able to benefit from the container homes that will be supplied by the government. Those living in container homes are expected to be placed in permanent homes that government officials say will be built by the end of August.There were nine tent cities remaining in Van, but they are gradually being evacuated. Most recently, tent cities provided by Şahabettin Özarslaner Vanspor Sports Facilities, the State Waterworks Authority (DSİ) and the Provincial Special Administration were shut down.
The other six tent cities are still operating. Nurettin Sarı (58), a resident of one of these tent cities, said he had to stay in the same tent with his sons and grandsons because the family, which rented out their apartment before the earthquake, had nowhere else to go. Sarı said they have been living in a tent for the past two-and-a-half months and relied on an electric heater because their tent was manufactured for summer conditions. He said they were still in search of a warm place and a roof over their heads. “We are living in miserable conditions. I hope someone will help us. My sons are able, but there is no work for them.”
Rabia Sarı, the daughter-in-law of Nurettin Sarı who gave birth to a baby after the earthquake, said it was very difficult for her to keep warm her baby, who is about two weeks old now. “Living in a tent was not as easy as it was. With all the snowfall and the harsh weather, it has become extremely difficult. It is really hard to take good care of the baby and keep it warm in this weather.”
Ayhan Alan is another resident of the same tent city and is sharing a tent with his mother. He also cannot move to a better place due to economic conditions. His landlord seized TL 8,000 worth of furniture from the apartment they rented before the earthquake. “There are only about 20 families like us left in this tent city. Families who were lucky enough moved into a container home. Other people who had homes returned to them. Only people like us, who rented, stayed here. Shelter is still the biggest problem for earthquake survivors.”
So is the choice between freezing to death or burning to death in a tent fire for those who can’t afford to move into a building or who haven’t been placed in a container home? Osman Acar, a regional firefighting official, said the number of fires breaking out in tents increased significantly in January. “As temperatures fall, the risk of fire increases as more people are using heaters. We have so far lost nine people in fires. We are trying our best to intervene as quickly as possible, but most of the time, a tent reported as being on fire is in ashes by the time we get there.”
Fatma İpek (20) also continues to live at the Mimar Sinan tent city in Van. She also nearly escaped death in a heater-related accident. İpek suffered from carbon monoxide poisoning. “I still visit the hospital every few days for follow-ups. We can’t really use the stove now because we are scared. We only use an electric heater, but whenever there is a power blackout, we are left in the cold.” She said she is staying with 10 other people in a tent 30 square meters in size. “We don’t even have a television in our tent. All we have is a radio, and we are listening to that. We sometimes visit our neighbors to have tea. This is how we try to pass these long winter nights.”
Hatice Koç, the occupant of a nearby tent, is staying there with her four children and husband. “We rented before the earthquake, now we can’t return. The landlord wants money. We can’t really go back so we have to stay here. But we don’t turn on the stove because we are afraid of carbon monoxide poisoning. We are trying to keep warm using an electric heater.”
For others, tents are not an option. Cafer Cangül, who is from Kavuncu village in central Van, said he and his family returned to their house -- even though it was heavily damaged in the earthquake -- unable to cope with the winter cold. “We stayed with 12 others during the time we stayed in a tent. We had to use a stove because it was so cold, and one person had to keep watch every night to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning. But it wasn’t really working; this is why we moved back to our house, which is badly damaged. That’s where we are staying now.”