Turkish Cypriot families devastated by Turkey earthquake

A little after 3:17am on Monday, February 6, I woke up dazed and confused with my bed rocking back and forth.

Upon reaching for my phone, a wave of social media posts and text messages confirmed that there had indeed been an earthquake. I then went back to sleep, before waking up later in the morning to go about my day.

The weather was shocking on that Monday, with heavy rain forming rivers up Nicosia’s streets all morning. At the same time, the dazed confusion of the early hours was solidifying into worsening reports from Turkey about the veracity of the earthquake.

As the seriousness of the situation began to become clear, the hanging lights in the coffee shop where I was began to sway, and the ground beneath my feet briefly felt almost like liquid.

In Turkey, the result was disastrous. A second major earthquake had struck just nine hours after the first, making an already desperate situation orders of magnitude worse.

As the day progressed, word spread that Cypriot children, who had travelled to the city of Adiyaman to take part in a volleyball tournament, had not been reached since the earthquake struck.

There were two Cypriot teams in Adiyaman, both from Famagusta. One belonged to the Canbulat middle school, and the other to the Famagusta Turk Maarif Koleji (TMK).

In the afternoon, their families flocked to Ercan (Tymbou) airport in the hope of good news, and for the families of the Canbulat children, good news did come shortly after 9pm, as an aeroplane touched down with the team on board alive, and shaken, but well.

From that moment onwards, all eyes in the north of Cyprus turned to the Isias hotel in Adiyaman, where the Famagusta TMK children had been staying when the earthquakes struck.

The hotel had completely collapsed, and rescue teams were working through its ruins attempting to locate those trapped underneath the rubble. However, as hours became days with no contact made with any of the Cypriot children, the worst-case scenario became ever more likely.

feature tom rescuers in the rubble of the isias hotel

Rescuers in the rubble of the Isias hotel

It all began to become reality on Wednesday, February 8, as the lifeless bodies of Cypriot children and teachers began to be pulled from the rubble at the Isias hotel.

The following day, word began to spread that the hotel had not been structurally sound even before the earthquake struck, with a local journalist saying supporting columns had been “cut” at the building.

The subsequent days were solemn and silent in the north. News of body after body being pulled from the ruins of the hotel was complimented by Famagusta’s Namik Kemal square filling up over and over again for funeral after funeral at the town’s Lala Mustafa Pasha mosque.

As rescue efforts in the earthquake-hit area began to wind down, the attention of the families of those killed turned into a will to hold accountable those responsible for the Isias hotel’s collapse.

Four people were remanded in custody within two weeks of the earthquake, but lawyers quickly became frustrated with the process, saying they were “blocked” from accessing the relevant documents.

Back in Cyprus, secondary effects of the earthquake were beginning to impact Turkish Cypriot children, with ‘government’-ordered inspections into school buildings finding many of them to be unsafe.

As a result, children attended schools in temporary buildings and even tents, which then subsequently flooded in the rain. Inspections, schools being found unsafe, and flooding of temporary buildings continued into the Autumn.

In Turkey, universities conducted reports into the Isias hotel, attempting to determine the cause of the building’s collapse.

The Istanbul Technical University’s report confirmed that supporting columns had indeed been cut at the hotel, while the Karadeniz Technical University’s report concluded that sand and gravel from a river had been used to construct the building, and that an entire extra floor had been illegally built on top of the already compromised structure in 2016.

The floor was subsequently legalised during a “zoning amnesty” in 2018.

The publishing of the reports and confirmation of the manner in which the hotel was built confirmed the children’s parents’ view that those responsible should be charged with intentionally killing the children.

The Adiyaman chief public prosecutor’s office had put forward a case of causing death by negligence, which carries a lighter sentence, but the families of those killed saw this as insufficient.

Lawyer Pervin Aksoy, whose daughter Serin was among those killed, said “you stole everything from us, our whole life is over. Everything has been shattered, our lives are lost, how can you think of getting away with such a light punishment?”

The parents’ view on the matter was shared by high-profile Turkish Cypriot political figures, including Erhan Arikli, Tufan Erhurman, and Serdar Denktash.

It is also a view shared by the thousands who marched from the Famagusta TMK to the town’s cemetery to demand charges of intentional killing be brought. Among them were Turkish Cypriot Leader Ersin Tatar and various members of the ‘government’.

The trial of the 11 people accused of bearing responsibility for the hotel’s collapse is set to begin in Adiyaman on January 3.

In any case, justice will never be done for what happened at the Isias hotel. Justice would have been for those 24 children being reunited with their families alive and well. The best the justice system can do is punish those who robbed the Cypriot families of their children.