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Residents, including local officials, continue to rebuild their lives after the October 23rd 2011 quake that killed hundreds and left an estimated 60,000 people homeless.

One year after the earth shook Van and destroyed their home, Namet Isnas and his family has finished building a new house. The construction worker is now busy with similar projects for others.

The Isnas family is ready to move into their new home. They lived in tents for a year after their previous house was destroyed by an earthquake. [Fréderike Geerdink/SES Türkiye]

One year after the earth shook Van and destroyed their home, Namet Isnas and his family has finished building a new house. The construction worker is now busy with similar projects for others. “We are in more or less the same situation as before the earthquake,” he told SES Türkiye as his children sit and lay on the floor doing their homework.

Before finishing the house two weeks ago, the family lived in a tent and used part of their earthquake-damaged home across the street, having installed large poles to support the weakened roof.

Most people in Van have some sort of housing now, after the massive quake turned much of the area into rubble. About 8,000 homes were rendered unusable by the quake, officials said, leaving about 60,000 people homeless. Authorities said 604 people died in the quake, while another 4,000 were hurt.

In the aftermath, tents were provided by Kizilay, the Turkish Red Crescent, and large numbers of families were relocated to live in containers, sometimes a significant distance from their old homes. The government has been building housing complexes, nicknamed TOKI after the state housing agency, also often away from the residents’ former neighborhoods.

The prospect of relocating led the Isnas family to turn down a container when it was offered. They stayed and focused on collecting materials and saving money to rebuild. Their new home is small, too small in fact to house everyone, and as a result, some family members still sleep in the tent.

“We have our bread oven here, and the school is here and the container city was too far away,” 19-year-old Serbet Isnas told SES Türkiye. “A container is also not big enough for all of us.” The family has tried to reinforce the tent with blankets, carpets, cardboard, stones and extra piles, but worry about the upcoming winter. Namet Isnas also acknowledged his new home is not earthquake-proof.

“We can really not afford to build a house with a strong ceiling, with columns and concrete walls,” he said. He said he spent about 2500 TL to buy wood for the ceiling, then used beams, bricks and doors recovered from uninhabitable houses. Mud, not cement, was applied to hold it all together. “We didn’t have a strong house before, and we don’t have a strong house now,” Isnas said. “For richer people it’s much harder to adjust.”

For Oktay Güven, an employee of the Van municipality’s social help department, the quake aftermath has been made harder by the lack of resources resulting from the major drop in local tax revenue as well as a cut in funding by the state. Güven’s office is in a container, since his office building was rendered unsafe by the quake, and he has been living with his parents in another container. He said not everyone can cover the expenses to rebuild. “And the municipality cannot always help out,” Güven told SES Türkiye. “Our budget is 50 percent less since the earthquake.”

Residents visit the department to apply for food and help in repairing their houses. Sometimes the office can only provide advice. “It hurts me to hear the family you visited could only afford to build a house that is not earthquake proof,” Güven said. “Not everybody applies for help at the municipality. Many people just go their own way.”

Güven also said his family hopes their use of a newly built TOKI home will be only a step in their recovery. “We hope to have a new house ready at the place where our old house was in about a year,” he said. “Then we will leave TOKI again. We prefer to be on our own grounds.”

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to Van to mark the anniversary of the earthquake and hand out keys to TOKI houses to the new inhabitants. Since spring, 15,000 of 17,000 houses have been completed. His visit forced local residents to delay the unveiling of a remembrance statue to November 9th, the day a second major temblor hit Van. The postponement frustrated some local members of the Turkish Engineers and Architects Chambers Association, which is financing the statue project, which is in a new park being built by the municipality.

Artists Sezer Cihaner Keser and Nihat Sabahat said their work represents stones tearing apart and a mother trying to hold onto her child. “We work 10 hours a day on the statue,” Sezer told SES Türkiye. “We see it as a social responsibility. We are not being paid for it.”

Friction between the AKP government and the pro-Kurdish BDP municipality is often apparent and led to some complaints about the flow of aid to Van. The prime minister’s visit has led some to voice complaints.

But controversy doesn’t interest Namet Isnas, who spends his time trying to earn money to improve his new small home. “There is more work in construction than before the quake,” he said. “Hopefully I can make enough money to one day build a house that’s strong enough to withstand the next earthquake.”

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