Turkish Cypriots left reeling after Turkey earthquake deaths
The Turkish Cypriot community, and especially Famagustians, are mourning the deaths of 24 of their brightest and most accomplished children along with 11 parents and teachers in the devastating earthquake that hit southern Turkey last week.
The students, aged between 11 and 14, were all from a Famagusta secondary school and were in the Turkish city of Adıyaman for a volleyball championship along with 15 parents and teachers. They were all staying at the Isias hotel. Thirty-five of them including all the children died, while four adults managed to get out of the rubble by themselves.
As the bodies of 24 children and 15 adults were recovered from the Isias hotel rubble and brought back to Cyprus over the course of a week, Turkish Cypriots were likening their pain to none other they had felt before.
“Famagusta has had wars, but never such a pain,” said peace activist and doctor Okan Dağlı, who lost his cousin’s wife and two children in the Adıyaman Isias hotel. “These children did not go to war. These children went to play volleyball and they got buried alive under the rubble.”
In the worst natural disaster in the region of the last century, as the World Health Organisation has called it, two earthquakes of magnitude 7.8 and 7.5 struck southern Turkey and north-western Syria within hours on Monday, February 6 and killed a total of over 41,000 people – a figure that is expected to rise. The total number of Turkish Cypriots to have died in the earthquake in different parts of Turkey now stands at 48.
Dağlı explains that the grief has touched everyone in Famagusta in some way, as every child that has died, or their parents are friends with or known to someone in the closely knit and small town.
“Some people in Famagusta lost all their family in the earthquake, some children lost both their parents, some parents lost both their children,” says Dağlı. “The whole town is crying. We don’t only have pain at the funerals, cemetery, or memorial services. We have pain everywhere.”
Thousands attended the funerals of the schoolchildren and their parents and teachers held in Famagusta and the surrounding villages over the course of a week as bodies were brought back from Turkey. The streets of Famagusta were largely empty while many restaurants and shops remained closed until later this week. Social media in the northern part of Cyprus has been filled with black profile pictures or a cartoon by Iranian cartoonist Ali Reza Pakdel, which pictures a boy and a girl playing volleyball with a moon and stars.
“An undefinable pain was raining on the 700-year-old cathedral,” wrote journalist Cenk Mutluyakalı, after the funeral for the last bodies was held at Famagusta’s the Lala Mustafa Paşa Camii or the Ayios Nicholas cathedral last Sunday.
“Thousands of faces, who have grown old in a matter of seven days, were looking at each other meaninglessly; sounds of prayer were interrupted with sobs; the feeling of helplessness in the face of death was rolling down from the eyes. Everyone in Famagusta lost someone close to them. The city lost its colours, thousands of people lost their children, and a school lost its voice.”
Alongside grief, there is also a huge anger among the Turkish Cypriot community towards not only the owner of the Isias hotel and the contractor who built it, but also towards the Turkish officials, who gave permits and licences to the building, which collapsed like a sandcastle.
“The building was a death trap,” Cemal Betmezoğlu, who participated in the search and rescue effort at the Isias hotel told the daily Yenidüzen. “There was no concrete. The rubble was just a pile of sand with no concrete… Unfortunately, it was obvious at first sight that we would not find many people alive.”
Murat Aktuğralı, who managed to get out of the rubble by himself, but lost his 13-year-old son Aras, says that the hotel collapsed in the first 15-20 minutes. Turkish tourist guide Anıl Zeybek, who was pulled out of the rubble of the Isias hotel alive after 30 hours, confirms Aktuğralı’s account.
Turkish Cypriots have taken the social media to demand that a criminal investigation be opened into the owners of Isias, and all the others responsible for the hotel that killed so many children. #isiaskatilleriyargilansin (#prosecuteisiasmurderers) became the number one trend topic on Twitter in Turkey.
“We are all very angry,” says Dağlı. “These children were killed. This is not the worst natural disaster of the century. This is the worse negligence of the century.”
Journalist Sami Özuslu, who has friends that lost their children in the earthquake, likens the Isias hotel rubble to the mass graves from 1974.
“After Muratağa, Atlılar, Sandallar, we have a new mass grave in Adıyaman,” says Özuslu.
The board of directors of the Union of the Chambers of Cyprus Turkish Engineers and Architects KTMMOB stated that it is working closely with the Turkish chamber and will publicise the results of the study conducted on the samples taken from the rubble of the Isias hotel. The Turkish Cypriot Bar Association also said it is cooperating with the Turkish Bar Association to bring those responsible to account for the lives that have been lost.
Four people, Ahmet Bozkurt, Efe Bozkurt, Amine Bozkurt and Şule Özbek have been apprehended in relation with the Isias Hotel collapse, the Adıyaman Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office stated on Wednesday.
However, there are doubts in the community that justice will be served, as the hotel’s owner, Ahmet Bozkurt, and his family are supporters of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party AKP. Bozkurt openly supports AKP during elections and had a large poster of Erdoğan unfurled from the Isias hotel during the 2018 elections.
According to the Turkish OdaTV, the hotel construction had previously been closed and sealed twice for not conforming with the earthquake safety standards, but the seals were broken and the construction continued because of the owners’ close relations with AKP.
Amid grief, heartbreak and anger, the Turkish Cypriot community was overwhelmed by the unprecedented solidarity and support it received from the Greek Cypriots.
From the first moment that it was confirmed that there were Turkish Cypriot children under the rubble in Adıyaman, hundreds of Greek Cypriots took to social media to write messages of empathy. Some Greek Cypriot schools and volleyball teams prepared banners and posted messages of solidarity. Politicians, political parties and civil society organisations released statements in support of the Turkish Cypriot community.
As bodies started to be recovered, many Greek Cypriots changed their profile pictures to black. Many attended the funerals in Famagusta. Some Greek Cypriots placed flowers on the gate of the school where the children, who died, attended. On Sunday, Greek Cypriot civil society activists held a symbolic vigil outside the Presidential Palace in Nicosia.
Nicosia municipality and others placed their flags at half-mast.
In response, the Nicosia Turkish municipality posted on its social media page: “We will forever remember how you shared our pain and showed your support in these difficult times.”
The House of Representatives and the Cyprus university also lowered their flags to half-mast.
“The loss of these young people’s lives fills us with immense sadness. Some of them, in a short time, could have been members of our university community. The flags of the University of Cyprus fly at half mast,” rector Tasos Christofidis posted on his social media page.
“So many Greek Cypriot friends called, sent messages, came to the funerals, brought flowers,” says Dağlı, who is very much touched by how this tragedy has brought the two communities closer together. “There is an unbelievable feeling of empathy. They are feeling our pain.”