Turkey one year after quake: People united in reconstruction beyond emergency
by Dario Salvi

The situation is still critical and Antioch a "ghost town". Caritas' contribution in guaranteeing food, accommodation, psychological support, education and schooling. Bishop Bizzeti: "It will take at least 10 years to understand whether the region will be able to recover, but I am optimistic".

Milan (AsiaNews) - A community of  "living stones" ready to rebuild from the rubble of the recent past as described by Msgr. Paolo Bizzeti, recently reconfirmed apostolic vicar of Anatolia and president of Caritas Turkey, that shares a strong feeling of "unity within the community," as witnessed by Giulia Longo, Program Manager of Caritas Turkey, whogoes on to descrie this reality as  "the truest and most concrete symbol" in a context of profound devastation.

These are the foundations for the reconstruction of "a Church that is different from before" born from the choice to "remain despite everything" in this dramatic phase in the history of the region.

It is also the picture painted by the vicar of Anatolia and the head of the Christian charitable body, one year after that dramatic 6 February 2023, in an area profoundly marked by the earthquake, by the difficulties and uncertainties of reconstruction, in a context of perpetual precariousness.

Continuous emergency

The 7.7 magnitude earthquake remains an open wound for Turkey (and neighboring Syria) with a serious emergency in dozens of centers in the south and south-east, for what is considered the worst natural disaster in modern history .

Following the main shock, at least 30 thousand aftershocks occurred in the following three months and the earth continues to shake: on 27 January a 5.1 magnitude earthquake was recorded in Malatya which reawakened fears and traumas that had never subsided. Official estimates report a damaged area the size of Germany (around 350 thousand km2) and which involved up to 14 million people, around 16% of the population.

The official victims are 59,259 (and 8,476 in Syria) but, as Msgr. Bizzeti points out "the real figure is perhaps around 150 thousand" and "the proportions of the disaster are much greater".

According to UN experts, there are 1.5 million people without homes and an estimate of the damage amounts to 148.8 billion dollars (equal to 9% of GDP), while yesterday tens of thousands of people demonstrated in the province of Hatay, the largest affected, to protest against the government's "negligence" in aid and reconstruction.

In the first phase, the vicariate of Anatolia and Caritas Turkey distributed water, food, blankets, clothes, medicines, detergents and cleaning materials both at the episcopal headquarters in Iskenderun and at homes, in the streets and in the first camps.

Then school tents were added to guarantee education and contribute to the development of children in a context of serious need. Subsequently, the interventions involved tents, field kitchens, shower rooms, containers and canteen utensils, fans and refrigerators.

Tens of thousands of families assisted with goods, psychological help and medical care. Nonetheless, today "we are still experiencing a serious emergency situation" and "it will take at least 10 years - explains Msgr. Bizzeti - to understand if the region will be able to recover, but I am optimistic".

Caritas on the front line

In a highly critical situation in Turkey, as in neighboring Syria, the network of local Caritas and Caritas Internationalis continues its work to support a population in need, and often abandoned to itself.

An impressive effort implemented in recent months and demonstrated by the numbers: as of December 2023 Caritas Turkey had distributed over 6,280 meals, 4,422 food parcels and 5,201 hygiene items. At least 121 families received school supplies and 221 subsidies to cover rent payments.

The Christian organization also provided the affected populations with 1798 fans (to soothe the summer heat), 9,444 packages of wood and coal and 336 heating devices to cope with the harsh winter temperatures. The precarious humanitarian situation has also been exacerbated by the floods that have hit the country in recent months, worsening the condition of displaced people.

“So far we have helped more than 20 thousand people, around 6 thousand families, concentrated in the province of Hatay” says Giulia Longo. “A year ago, in the first phase, we focused on food and raw materials, access to electricity and water. Now we are still distributing meals, we are still talking about container tents and basic necessities, because everything is missing.

In the reception centers there are fires caused by electrical short circuits due to heavy rains, floods, landslides and mud" and with the earth continuing to shake "we also receive calls from those whose houses are accessible" but fear new collapses. The commitment is not only aimed at housing and sustenance but also intends to encourage the resumption of productive activities: "For this reason - continues the Caritas manager - we finance micro projects that lead to autonomy such as a stable, a knitting workshop, etc".

Finally, there is the educational aspect so that an entire generation is not lost: “At first - he explains - we have opened classes in some tents made available by the diocese" alongside distance learning, a practice already used during the Covid-19 pandemic. "Still - he underlines - we have scholarships and school support plans", in addition to "psychological help projects, also resorting to the use of mobile clinics".

Rebuilding from “living stones”

For the Christian community, "the symbol of destruction" is the cathedral of Iskenderun, the Church of the Annunciation, a 19th century building "completely razed to the ground". “After a year the first concern is to start again from the 'living stones': today a new building is growing, a cathedral made up of people" also made up "of many people who want to become Christians, catechumens who have undertaken the journey and lay people who are committed to building a living Church".

An example is the enthusiastic participation of dozens of boys and girls, also coming from the earthquake area, at the World Youth Days (WYD) in Lisbon. A group accompanied by the Jesuit Fr. Antuan Ilgit who, just last year after the Portuguese experience and the meeting with Pope Francis, was appointed auxiliary of the vicariate of Anatolia.

His vocation was "born from the earthquake", but which is at the same time a symbol of reconstruction and of a Church that "is becoming more and more Turkish" as Msgr. Bizzeti himself has hoped several times in the past.

Returning to post-earthquake management, it "presents critical issues both due to its enormous dimensions and because we are often unprepared to face tragedies of this nature" and the still current example remains Antioch, the "heart of the devastation: a ghostly city, of where we don't yet know what will be done."

“If some buildings are saved, if everything is leveled by rebuilding from scratch or if we want to take advantage - he continues - to carry out in-depth excavations” and discover the heritage underground. In a long-term perspective, if we were to decide to build a modern metropolis of skyscrapers "we will still need regulatory plans - warns the bishop - ideas and projects, management that is not clientelistic. In this respect the government needs a long time and perhaps is struggling."

On the other hand, the (few) remaining inhabitants "show an incredible capacity for resilience": among many examples, the vicar concludes by telling of "a family who had a sweet shop and who now only owns a shack, in which they have reopened the 'business and went back to selling sweets."