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Grief gives way to anger over Turkey’s earthquake response

Many say rescue operations have been painfully slow as the death toll grows
A member of the Vehibe family mourns a relative during the burial of one of the earthquake victims that struck a border region of Turkey and Syria five days ago in Antakya, southeastern Turkey, on Saturday, February 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

When Zafer Mahmut Boncuk’s apartment building collapsed in Turkey’s devastating earthquake, he discovered his 75-year-old mother was still alive — but pinned under the wreckage.

For hours, Boncuk frantically searched for someone in the ancient, devastated city of Antakya to help him free her. He was able to talk to her, hold her hand and give her water. Despite his pleas, however, no one came, and she died on Tuesday, the day after the quake.

Like many others in Turkey, his sorrow and disbelief have turned to rage over the sense there has been an unfair and ineffective response to the historic disaster that has killed tens of thousands of people there and in Syria.

Boncuk directed his anger at President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, especially because she seemed so close to rescue but no one came. Her remains were finally removed Sunday, nearly a week after the building collapsed. His father’s body is still in the rubble.

“What would happen if it was your own mother, dear Recep Tayyip Erdogan? What happened to being a world leader? Where are you? Where?” he screamed.

“I gave her water to drink, I cleared her face of rubble. I told her that I would save her. But I failed,” said Boncuk, 60. “The last time we spoke, I asked if I should help her drink some water. She said no, so I rubbed some water on her lips. Ten minutes later, she died.”

He blamed “ignorance and lack of information and care — that’s why my mother died in front of my eyes.”

Many in Turkey express similar frustration that rescue operations have been painfully slow since the Feb. 6 quakes and that valuable time was lost during the narrow window for finding people alive.

Others, particularly in southern Hatay province near the Syrian border, say Erdogan’s government was late in delivering assistance to the hardest-hit region for what they suspect are both political and religious reasons.

In the southeastern town of Adiyaman, Elif Busra Ozturk waited outside the wreckage of a building on Saturday where her uncle and aunt were trapped and believed dead, and where the bodies of two of her cousins already had been found.

“For three days, I waited outside for help. No one came. There were so few rescue teams that they could only intervene in places they were sure there were people alive,” she said.

At the same complex, Abdullah Tas, 66, said he had been sleeping in a car near the building where his son, daughter-in-law and four grandchildren were buried. He said that rescuers had first arrived four days after the earthquake struck. The Associated Press could not independently verify his claim.

“What good is that for the people under the debris?” he asked.

Onlookers stood behind police tape Saturday in Antakya as bulldozers clawed at a high-rise luxury apartment building that had toppled onto its side.

Over 1,000 residents had been in the 12-story building when the quake struck, according to relatives watching the recovery effort. They said hundreds were still inside but complained the effort to free them had been slow and not serious.

“This is an atrocity, I don’t know what to say,” said Bediha Kanmaz, 60. The bodies of his son and 7-month-old grandson had been pulled from the building — still locked in an embrace — but his daughter-in-law was still inside.

“We open body bags to see if they’re ours, we’re checking if they’re our children. We’re even checking the ones that are torn to pieces,” she said of herself and other grief-stricken relatives.

Kanmaz also blamed Turkey’s government for the slow response, and accused the national rescue service of failing to do enough to recover people alive.

She and others in Antakya expressed the belief that the presence of a large minority of Alevis — an Anatolian Islamic community that differs from Sunni and Shia Islam and Alawites in Syria — had made them a low priority for the government. Traditionally, few Alevis vote for Erdogan’s ruling party. There was no evidence, however, that the region was overlooked for sectarian reasons.

Erdogan said Wednesday that disaster efforts were continuing in all 10 affected provinces and dismissed allegations of no help from state institutions like the military as “lies, fake slander.”

But he has acknowledged shortcomings. Officials said rescue efforts in Hatay were initially complicated by the destruction of the local airport’s runway and bad road conditions.

Anger over the extent of the destruction, however, is not limited to individuals. Turkish authorities have been detaining or issuing detention warrants for dozens of people allegedly involved in the construction of buildings that collapsed, and the justice minister has vowed to punish those responsible.

Kanmaz blamed negligence on the part of the developer of the apartment building where her family had been killed.

“If I could wrap my hands around the contractor’s neck, I would tear him to shreds,” she said.

That contractor, who oversaw the construction of the 250-unit building, was detained at Istanbul Airport on Friday before boarding a flight out of the country, Turkey’s official Anadolu news agency reported. On Saturday, he was formally arrested. His lawyer suggested the public was looking for a scapegoat.

In multiethnic southern Turkey, other tensions are rising. Some expressed frustration that Syrian refugees who fled to the region from their devastating civil war are burdening the sparse welfare system and competing for resources with Turkish people.

“There are many poor people in Hatay, but they don’t offer us any welfare; they give it to the Syrians. They give so much to the Syrians,” Kanmaz said. “There are more Syrians than Turks here.”

There were signs Saturday the tensions could be boiling over.

Two German aid groups and the Austrian Armed Forces temporarily interrupted their rescue work in the Hatay region citing fears for the safety of their staff. They resumed work after the Turkish army secured the area, the Austrian Defense Ministry spokesman tweeted.

“There is increasing tension between different groups in Turkey,” Lt. Col. Pierre Kugelweis of the Austrian Armed Forces told the APA news agency. “Shots have reportedly been fired.”

German news agency dpa reported that Steven Berger, chief of operations of the aid group I.S.A.R. Germany, said that “it can be seen that grief is slowly giving way to anger” in Turkey’s affected regions.

For Kanmaz, it was a mixture of grief and anger.

“I’m angry. Life is over,” she said. “We live for our children; what matters most to us is our children. We exist if they exist. Now we are over. Everything you see here is over.”


Emrah Gurel in Adiyaman, Turkey, Zeynep Bilginsoy in Istanbul, Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, and Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin contributed.


Follow AP’s earthquake coverage at

Justin Spike And Bernat Armangué, The Associated Press

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