Op-Ed: With newly constructed apartments reduced to rubble and the death toll nearing 600, Turkey must demand the truth about how unsafe buildings were allowed to rise.
ISTANBUL - When I went to Ercis on Monday, the scene that shook me the most was that of Özgür Durmaz, a military officer, waiting in the ruins of a collapsed apartment on Kisla Street to see whether his pregnant wife and 8-year-old son might be among those who were rescued. The look of helplessness on his face will stay with me for a long time. The day after returning to Istanbul I heard that the bodies of his wife and son were retrieved from the rubble.
Özgür Durmaz lost his wife Hüsniye and son Cemil not to the earthquake, but because the seven-story building they lived in hadn't been constructed according to earthquake safety standards.
The massive tragedy he faces is the result of a series of accumulated shortcomings in a chain of responsibility stretching from politicians in Ankara to local officials in Van. As of last night, 576 of our fellow citizens had been confirmed killed by the quake, with 2,608 injured. It is not enough to mourn our dead. If we want to respect their memory, we need to draw up an inventory of all the shortcomings that led to their deaths, to face these facts -- and more importantly, to have those responsible be held accountable.
A special committee needs to be formed to investigate the causes behind the deaths in the Van quake. In a real democracy, this committee would be appointed by lawmakers. But given that the eventual outcome might be unpalatable to the public, it wouldn't be surprising to see a reluctance on their part. If Parliament doesn't do it, it can also be carried out by NGOs. The Chamber of Architects and Engineers, for instance, could head up such a group.
Every building, every permit
This commission needs to examine each building that collapsed in Van and Ercis with the goal of documenting exactly what happened. Every building's report should begin with a list of the people who were buried in its rubble. It should then include the details of when it was constructed and whether the necessary building permits were procured before construction began. It should also show whether the contractor had his building plans approved by the municipality, as well as the necessary engineering calculations.
This information is easy to obtain from municipal archives. The next step is to see whether the municipality monitored construction and whether the building was then given a residential status permit. If so, it will show that the building was completed in accordance with plans, and that it was considered safe to live in. Then we need to establish when utilities such as electricity and water were delivered by the municipality. If the building had residential status, no problem. But if these services were delivered to buildings without that status, it will mean the municipality delivered services to a building it had not actually approved as safe to live in.
That's not all. This study should also draw up an inventory of all the urban plan and building changes approved by the local municipal councils. This will tell us which of those collapsed buildings were built by bending existing construction standards. If any of those changes were legally petitioned, the outcome of such court cases should also be investigated – if there was, for example, a construction annulment order that was later overridden.
These facts need to be established if we are to consider ourselves a country where human life is valued, and where the memory of the dead is honored. I personally will be curious to see the report assigned to the building where I encountered the devastated Ozgur Durmaz. And I am sure that all the families who lost loved ones in the earthquake will want the truth to be established. It is not just a desire, but as citizens, it is a fundamental right. Now is the time to demand it.
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