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Feature - Issue #14

We did not leave, we are here. We will return. It is our soil.

Words by Erkan Affan

Erkan Affan journeys to their family’s home in the aftermath of the Earthquake in Turkey and Syria and unpacks how it impacted marginalised Indigenous communities, including their own.

This is dedicated to my aunt, Sabahat. We lost you to the earthquakes, and it took two weeks for your body to be liberated from the rubble. May you rest in peace, I won’t forget your life, nor the conditions in which you died. To my cousins and extended family members, whom we lost to the earthquakes in unimaginable ways. Some of you are still missing. As the dust settles, our hopes fade. To the tens of thousands of people who have been killed in Turkey and Syria due to improperly constructed buildings. To the millions of people directly affected, whether losing their homes and becoming displaced, or watching as that same fate affects hundreds of thousands around them. To the millions more watching in agony from far away as our histories crumble. As the streets we and our families grew up on disappear. As the yearning for home is replaced with the bitter kick of grief.

Ankara, 9 March 2023

I’ve just come back from seeing my godfather’s family in the city centre of Ankara, Turkey’s capital. They came here on the 9 February and have been here ever since. With them are close family friends, currently staying in a guest house on the fringes of the city. The group of cars with licence plates outside of the cafe we meet at all start with the number 31, an indication of where everyone is coming from. Hatay province. The part of Turkey catastrophically affected by the earthquakes that struck throughout February.

(…)

Both my mother’s and father’s families are indigenous to Hatay. My mother is from the coastal city of İskenderun, straddling the eastern Mediterranean Sea and surrounded by the Nur mountains. My father is from the historic provincial capital of Antakya, just behind the mountains to İskenderun and about a 40-minute drive from the Syrian border. Our province is home to a number of Indigenous minority communities to which we belong, stretching across both the Anatolian strait and the coastal Levantine region: Arab, Armenian, Assyrian. Whilst I’ve spent a substantial amount of my childhood in İskenderun, Antakya is the real landmark of our region. It holds one of the first churches in the world, St Pierre, various ancient mosques and synagogues, alongside the world’s largest historic mosaic and the second longest natural beach in Samandağ. Nestled on its surrounding mountains is the last recognised Armenian town in the Republic, Vak-ëf and further along the 2000-year-old Tree of Moses. We used to drive there in the summer to drink tea, eat shanklish and feel the fresh breeze from the nearby sea.

Hatay was heaven on earth.

(…ti…)

Was. It’s hard to process the tense change.

I want to speak on Hatay’s soil in a way that isn’t marred with so much pain and loss. But it’s not possible now. Most of it is gone, archived into human memory, photo albums and YouTube videos and nostalgic mixes. This shouldn’t have happened. With the advent of so much technology to predict and mitigate the consequences of an earthquake, how are we supposed to accept this as an inevitability? After all, if a government can rise to be one of the major superpowers of drone warfare, including manufacturing and exporting, is it incapable of saving its own population if it chooses to?

One of the most recurring phrases I’ve heard is, “earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do.” From academic experts to correspondents in the disaster zone, this sentence has become etched into my memory. The official governmental rhetoric however, at least in the first few presidential speeches in the aftermath of the two largest earthquakes on 6 February, has been comedic for even the most serious person in the country: “this is destiny.”

It was not destiny that killed members of my family and destroyed the livelihoods of the surviving ones. It was, as these experts and correspondents have said, the buildings. Unlike earthquakes, buildings are man-made, and their creators should be accountable. Corporate corruption is not some latent reality passed down to us by the Land, it is the result of capitalism. In the case of Hatay province more specifically, it is the result of racial capitalism. Of the continued economic, political and social subjugation of marginalised Indigenous identities located in the peripheries far away from the ‘West’ of the country. The part of the world that, unfortunately, many even in our own country have normalised referring to as statistics, concepts and numbers - not humans.

“Geçmiş olsun Türkiye ne demek? Bu felaketi Türkiye mi yaşadı, biz mi? Üç hafta geçmedi, herkes seçimlere odaklandı. Enkaz altındaki kalan dostlarımız, ailemiz, unutuldu. Türkiye ve dünya, geçmiş olsun deyip sırtını döndü bize.” (1)

London, 1 March 2023

Every time I pass by Latimer Road on the Hammersmith & City line, I would switch off my music and refuse to look at anything else until you were out of my line of sight. I did not care whether I was alone or with people, any emotion would be replaced with a deep sadness. As a Londoner, and as a human being, it would hurt to see you. Grenfell: a 24-storey residential building located in north Kensington, London, administered by the local council, which went up in flames on June 14 2017 due to the use of combustible cladding in its infrastructure.

I passed you again yesterday and this time I was overcome with rage. I felt that, by looking at you, I could, at least to a certain extent, empathise even more with the outrage that your friends/family feel.

You - the victims, the families, the community - were failed by the British state in the same way that my own cities and families were failed by the Turkish state. Just like you, our families’ homes were reduced to nothing in a shocking public spectacle. We cried for our lost ones whilst the news and the government spoke with apathy. Unaccountability became the commonality.

A building up in flames in London and a city left in rubble due to an earthquake in Anatolia may not have much in common on the surface, but these two do; the catastrophic result of little governmental regulation and corporate corner-cutting. Social and ethnic cleansing. Demographic change. Displacement. Two different corners of the same vicious scar, amplified by the sub-standard conditions of housing and a highly questionable governmental response.

How many people have to die for safe housing and building regulations to not be a privilege but a right?

İskenderun (Hatay Province), 21 March 2023

I was not ready for this level of destruction in İskenderun.

I spent my childhood in this city, and there’s certain areas that I can’t even recognise anymore. My cousins sit in the front and I’m staring in disbelief from the back seat.

“Bak, Erkan, benim beş arkadaşım burada hayatını kaybetti. Eda apartmanın hâline bak, o müteahhit inin dandik iş yaptığını zaten her kez biliyordu. Yazık insanlara…” (2)

The city and the corniche have 10-storey buildings that look like they could fall at any point, hanging by a few thin beams on the edge of a still-bustling road. We pass a large residence that only finished its construction two months ago when I was last here. An extortionately priced new-build, quite like the ones I’m used to seeing around Hackney that tower above communities like a panopticon. The side of it has been gutted by the earthquakes. On first glance it looks like it is swaying, but I can’t figure out whether that’s my mind playing tricks on me or the new normal that anyone who comes here is forced to accept.

“Ben Antakya’yı bırakmayacağım. O toprak benim toprağım. Bizim toprağımız ya akhedkadak. Ablam nasıl orada öldüğüyse ben de son nefesimi orada çekeceğim” (3)

Samandağ (Hatay Province), 23 March 2023

Yesterday I went to Samandağ, a historic township near my father’s city of Antakya. I was there with an aid organisation I’ve funded through my work. They picked me up in the morning from İskenderun and took me first to a camp in Kırıkhan before we headed through the outskirts of Antakya to reach Samandağ. I was talking with one of the aid workers in the back about some logistics when I saw a building that I recognised on the outskirts of Samandağ in total ruins. It felt like someone just punched me in the stomach. I lost my train of thought and just drifted off. My silence was recognised by those around me, the only person from this province in the car, and a collective hush ensued.

When we reached Samandağ and stepped out of the car at the organisation’s new headquarters under construction, I politely excused myself for half an hour to handle some ‘personal matters’ and walked down into the centre of the township. There’s very little I can write here that can express the destruction I saw. It felt like a bomb had been dropped in the centre. The roads were deserted. Entire buildings had collapsed, rubble everywhere. There were a pair of heels by the side of the road. I thought of my mum. I thought of my aunt. I thought of all the times that they would get ready to go out to the local çay bahçesi, restaurant or bar with their friends in the summer, wearing the same type of heels.

“Oğlum buralar çok tehlikeli, ne işin var burada?

Amca ben bir kurumla buradayım, merkeze gelip hasarı kendi gözlerimle görmek istedim…

Ne kurumu? Sen Samandağlı değilsin değil mi?

Yok amca benim ailem Affanlı

Ya ibni, gitme merkeze. Fi iktir hasar, dikkatli ol…

Ey vallah amo, geçmiş olsun

Allah maak” (4)

This uncle warned me against going to the city centre, but my naivety got the best of me. I wanted to see the damage with my own eyes, so I decided to defy uncle’s suggestions and continue towards the centre. I wish I didn’t. I can still smell the corpses under the rubble. I can still hear the flies buzzing around the debris. Nothing in my life could prepare me to see this. This will never be normal. It will never be OK. These homes are gone. My own family were under rubble just like this. How can I go to my own neighbourhood Affan and see it like this too? What if I pass by the very spot that my aunt took her last breath in in Armutlu? How can I pay respect to the dead when I don’t even know who died or when they died?

I used to always be that friend who whispered in graveyards, who recited a prayer before he went in or left, out of respect and out of fear of the dead. Now, I’m not sure when to stop whispering, because I don’t know where the dead end and where the living begin…

Karaağac (Hatay Province), 24 March 2023

“Dayı burada beklediğimden çok daha hasar var.

Evet…

Şu binanın hâline baksana!

Hangi bina Erkan, soldaki mı sağıdaki mi? Önümüzdeki mi arkamızdaki mi?”(5)

Last night I had an immense dream. Antakya and Samandağ were still standing in all their glory. All the churches, mosques, synagogues and tombs; the mosaics and sculptures; the old homes and cobble streets, the Affan coffeehouse. The courtyards and wineries. The archaeology museum and the old French buildings. St Pierre church, Habib Neccar Mosque. The beautiful olive trees in everyone’s gardens and the citrus fruit trees on the sidewalks. The schools and libraries. The old Armenian houses. They were all surrounding a huge, crystal clear lake.

The weather was warm, the breeze was salty and smelled like freshly cooked fish. I was with my father and we were standing on one edge of the lake’s banks. We were celebrating that Antakya and Samandağ had become an autonomous province, removed from all nation-states and elevated as a historical and cultural landmark for the world. My dad and I were over the moon.

Suddenly, I was on a cliff by the lake, and I dove straight into the lake . It was warm and rich with salt, just like the Eastern Mediterranean is known to be. But why was it a lake? I wondered why there was no tide, I’m used to the late afternoon waves in Karaağaç or Samandağ competing with each other to crash me into the rocks. I remembered that one time my cousin and his friend had to rescue me from the tides. They told me not to swim but I didn’t listen. I then remembered the jellyfish that stung me when I was eight. Then I thought about how long I’d been under the water and how I couldn’t breathe, I started to panic and…

I woke up to the sound of the television coming from next door. According to the voice I hear, there are 227 thousand pregnant people in the disaster zone with no access to healthcare facilities. And many people who have been displaced by the earthquakes are not sure where they are going to vote for the upcoming Presidential elections in May. Their registered address is under the rubble, along with the corpses of our loved ones.

Antakya (capital of Hatay province), 24 March 2023

I wish that Samandağ was the only place I had gone to. I didn’t need to go to Affan, in the provincial capital, Antakya. There’s no one in Affan except for dust, dogs, demolitions teams and the dead. There’s no reason for me to be here for work. I purely came here to see my own family’s streets. My family home. My aunt’s home. I couldn’t even get past the entrance to our street. The smell of corpses and the thick dust was overpowering. I...

Ankara, 30 March 2023

I don’t know how to end this piece. I almost don’t want to. This narrative has no closure. The only thing that “was” were the lives and the buildings, now gone. Everything else still “is” – the pain, the trauma, the loss. My surviving aunt called me earlier, she told me that she couldn’t do it in Mersin anymore. She’s returned to Antakya, and asked me to get her a tent. Even if I don’t, she said she will sleep outside on a rug. She doesn’t care about the dust or the smell of the dead. That is her home.

Who am I to tell her otherwise? Right now, I’m back in Ankara for a few days, before I head back to Hatay and eventually return to London. How can I say ????? anything?

The only thing I have swimming around my head now is the phrase I’ve seen on many remaining walls in Antakya and its surroundings: “ma rihna, nihna hun (Arabic), geri döneceğiz (Turkish); “we didn’t go, we are here (Arabic). We will return (Turkish)”.

Yes auntie, we will return. But sadly for now, we have to leave.

***

1. “What does ‘may it pass’ (the Turkish version of ‘condolences’) Turkey mean? Did Turkey experience this catastrophe, or us? Three weeks haven’t passed, and everyone is focusing on the elections. Our friends and family members under the rubble have been forgotten.
The rest of Turkey and the world gave
us their condolences, and they turned their back on us.” - My maternal uncle.

2. “Look Erkan, five of my friends lost their lives here. Look at the state of
Eda Apartment, everyone knew that
the contractor of that building had done a dud job. Shame.” - My maternal cousin.

3. “I am not going to leave Antakya.
That soil is my soil. It is our soil. Just as my sister died there, I too will draw my last breath there.” - My paternal aunt.

4. “My son these areas are very dangerous, what are you doing here?”

“I’m here with an organisation Uncle,
I wanted to go to the centre to see
the damage with my own eyes.”

“What organisation? You aren’t
from Samandag are you?”

“No uncle, my family are from
Affan (Antakya city centre).”

“(In Arabic): Oh son, don’t go to
the centre. There is a lot of damage.
Be careful.”

“OK uncle, “may it pass soon/
my condolences”.”

“God be with you.”

5. “Uncle, this place has a lot
more damage than I expected.”

“Yes.”

“Look at the state of these buildings!”

“Which one Erkan, on the left or the right? In front of us or behind us?”

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Feature - Issue #14

Feature - Issue #14