April 24, 2024

There is no election fever in the ancient city of Antakya in southern Turkey – just rubble and torment.

“What I want from the ballot box is his dead body and nothing else,” says Fethiye Keklik. “Our souls have been ripped away. He’s no use to us.”

The 68-year-old grandmother is referring to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Insulting the president can get you jailed here, but she won’t be silenced.

“He just brings harm. I’m thinking of burning my ballot paper – in front of the police and the soldiers.”

Turkey’s Islamist leader is looking vulnerable as never before in upcoming elections for parliament and the presidency on 14 May.

The end of the authoritarian Erdogan era – if it comes – should mean a freer, more democratic Turkey. Jails may be less crowded and relations with the West less fraught.

In the run-up to the polls, Turks have had much to complain – and grieve – about, from the state’s slow response to February’s earthquakes to an economy in ruins. The official inflation rate is 50%. The real figure could be twice that. Experts blame the president’s economic policies, politely described as “unorthodox”.

Here in southern Turkey, politics and economics are overshadowed by death.

A photo from a drone showing just a few buildings standing among empty space after rubble has been cleared awayIMAGE SOURCE,GOKTAY KORALTAN/BBC
Image caption,

As the rubble is cleared, historic Antakya is revealed now as a patchwork of ruins and empty spaces

The official toll from the worst natural disaster in modern Turkish history is more than 50,000. Many here believe the real figure is much higher and the government has stopped counting.

Fethiye’s count is four.

We find her at a bleak roadside cemetery where her grief rends the air. She is crumpled on the ground, in a dark headscarf and woollen cardigan, crying out to her son Coskun, 45, who lies beneath the soil.

“How can I forget you?” she wails, clutching the crude wooden board marking his grave. “Please take me with you. You left orphans behind you. I’ve brought Eren to see you.”

Fethiye Keklik mourns her son next to a Turkish flagIMAGE SOURCE,WIETSKE BUREMA/BBC
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“I’m thinking of burning my ballot paper – in front of the police and the soldiers,” says Fethiye

At the mention of his name, her four-year-old grandson comes to console her, squatting down by the grave to give her a hug. “Your father is lying here,” she tells him. “No, Papa isn’t here,” says Eren firmly.

The sombre little boy, in a dark blue anorak, has a raised scar on his forehead – imprinted by the quakes. Fethiye cradled him in her arms under the rubble for eight hours before they were pulled free – not by Turkish rescue workers, but by neighbours, who are Syrian refugees.

The family lost Eren’s father, brother, sister and a nephew – all four now lie buried in a row. Fethiye blames corrupt officials, cowboy builders and, most of all, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“In first place, it’s him,” she says, “because he gave an opportunity to such people. The developers bribe the municipalities and they build. They bribe and build. They killed us all.”

The earthquakes exposed structural faults in President Erdogan’s long rule. He presided over repeated amnesties for illegal construction. Developers could build a death trap and just pay a fine. And the state itself was hollowed out, critics say, resulting in a lack of proper oversight and preparedness.

Map showing the area affected by the earthquakes in Turkey, with Antakya highlighted

Walk through what remains of Antakya – a crucible of civilisations and religions – and you can see the consequences. Centuries of history have been reduced to a patchwork of ruins and empty spaces. Outside one collapsed house a chunky grey armchair remains intact, as if the owner might come back and take a seat. Some multi-storey blocks have been upended, others ripped open like grotesque dolls’ houses.

Almost every conversation here is punctuated with stories of the dead – many of whom perished waiting for help that never came. But in this deeply polarised country, the earthquakes are another fissure.

Supporters of the president – and there are many – echo his view that it was destiny. Among his religious conservative support base, his leadership remains an article of faith.

We come across Ibrahim Sener sitting in the ruins of Zumrut Street in Antakya’s old city, among shards of glass and jagged metal. The 62-year-old seems not to notice, lost in thought and cigarette smoke.

Ibrahim Sener, pictured sitting among the rubble outside a shop in AntakyaIMAGE SOURCE,WIETSKE BUREMA/BBC
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“Our president did his best,” says Ibrahim Sener, whose brother died in the disaster

“Our house cracked from end to end,” he tells us. “We lived the biggest nightmare inside the house. We can’t be happy that we survived because we lost our family and friends. There were no phone lines, no internet. No-one could help anyone. After five or six hours I got the news that my brother had died.”

His belief in the president is unshaken.

“It came from God,” he says. “It was God’s will that it happened. This should not be politicised. It’s not our president who created the earthquake. Our president did his best.”

Ibrahim goes on his way, but two women remain just across the road – Gozde Burgac, 29, and her aunt Suheyla Kilic, 50, who are both actresses. Gozde has a tattoo on her arm – “life is beautiful” written in French. In this new landscape of rubble, it reads like a mockery.

They came to the area to feed stray cats, an enduring Turkish tradition even in the worst of times. And they listened to Ibrahim’s account in disbelief and in agony.

Gozde Burgac and her aunt Suheyla Kilic, pictured in front of rubble in AntakyaIMAGE SOURCE,ORLA GUERIN/BBC
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“It’s his fault,” says Gozde Burgac, left, of Turkey’s president and his role in the disaster

“What I’ve just heard really offended me because nobody helped us in any way,” says Gozde, close to tears.

“Were we in a different universe, or was he? What he said about Erdogan was definitely not true. It’s his fault. The government are the ones obliged to help us, but nobody was here.

“With our own efforts, our own means, we tried to reach our families during the first hours of the earthquake. We reached their dead bodies hours later, days later.”

Gozde says officials from the presidency showed up once, as her brother-in-law was about to be brought out alive.

She says he was rescued by an Italian team, while all the government officials did was “pose for the cameras, so their uniforms were visible”.

“Then they left and nobody else came,” she says.

The women are now in mourning for three relatives, and for the treasured mosaic that was their city.

A digger working on the wreckage of a collapsed building in AntakyaIMAGE SOURCE,GOKTAY KORALTAN/BBC
Image caption,

Months on, the wreckage of collapsed buildings is still being cleared in Antakya

Will all the death and destruction shift the needle on election day?

The answer may be no.

Polls taken after the quakes suggested only a minor drop in support for the president, who has apologised for the state’s sluggish response. He has also promised an ambitious – if implausible – reconstruction programme.

“It won’t affect Erdogan,” according to Istanbul-based political analyst and pollster Can Selcuki. “This election is not about performance. It’s about identity. Those who want him, want him no matter what.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan waves to crowds at the opening of a car battery factory in BursaIMAGE SOURCE,TURKISH PRESIDENCY/MURAT CETINMUHURDAR/HANDOUT
Image caption,

President Erdogan is slightly behind in the polls, but still commands support from many in Turkey

After more than two decades in power, the Turkish leader has a serious – if mild-mannered – challenger. Kemal Kilicdaroglu is the secular candidate of an opposition alliance. Opinion polls give a slight lead to Kilicdaroglu, who is famed for making election videos sitting at the table in his modest kitchen. In a BBC interview, the former civil servant promised to bring freedom and democracy and reorient Turkey towards the West.

But many aren’t writing off the president just yet. That includes the Mayor of Antakya, Lutfu Savas, who is from Kilicdaroglu’s party.

We meet at a cluster of temporary buildings that now serve as his office.

“He [Erdogan] is the leader of a political party that has been able to stay in power for 21 years,” he says – longer than anyone else, even Turkey’s founding father, Kemal Ataturk. “Despite all the difficulties – economic, social and resulting from the earthquake – he knows how to use politics, and all the instruments of the state for victory.”

BBC iPlayer

Turkey: Empire of Erdogan

Recep Tayyip Erdogan – the most controversial president in modern Turkish history. What is behind his rise from prison to power – and his ruthless determination to stay at the top?

BBC iPlayer

President Erdogan and his Justice and Development (AK) Party will certainly be helped by his grip on the Turkish media. The government controls 90% of the national media, according to the press freedom group, Reporters without Borders.

What happens here matters beyond Turkey’s borders. The country is a regional heavyweight, facing both East and West. Its neighbours and its Nato allies will be watching closely.

Many analysts believe the contest will go to a second round on 28 May because neither presidential candidate will get more than 50% in the first ballot.

Rows of anonymous graves with makeshift, numbered markers where victims of the quake are buriedIMAGE SOURCE,GOKTAY KORALTAN/BBC
Image caption,

By the roadside, victims of the quake are buried in anonymous graves with makeshift markers

Back at the cemetery, change cannot come soon enough for Fethiye, who is scarred by memories of prising her dead son from the rubble – with her bare hands, and only her relatives for help.

“Turkey is finished,” she says. “When Erdogan leaves, Turkey will rise.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Credit: Orla Guerin
BBC News, Antakya

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