x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Shelter shortage forces Turkey to accept foreign aid

Government backtracks on refusal to accept help from other nations as fights break out among survivors trying to get hold of tents.

People wait for tents to be distributed yesterday in Ercis, one of the towns most severely affected by Sunday's earthquake.
People wait for tents to be distributed yesterday in Ercis, one of the towns most severely affected by Sunday's earthquake.

ISTANBUL // In a turnaround triggered by a drastic shortage of shelter for victims of last weekend's earthquake in eastern Anatolia, Turkey has decided to call for international support and has even asked Israel and Armenia, two countries whose ties with Turkey have been strained, for help, diplomats said yesterday.

In the immediate aftermath of Sunday's devastating quake in the province of Van that killed more than 450 people and left tens of thousands homeless in freezing temperatures, the Turkish government rejected international offers of help, saying the country had enough resources to handle the catastrophe on its own.

But protests against a shortage of emergency shelter, chaotic scenes at distribution points as desperate survivors fought for tents and reports of tents being sold on the black market forced the government to reconsider. Almost 30 countries had offered help in the form of temporary shelter, Turkish media reported.

"We had not anticipated such a huge demand for tents," Besir Atalay, the deputy prime minister in charge of the aid operation, told parliament on Tuesday. Following the admission, the prime minister's crisis centre asked the foreign ministry to contact the countries that had offered help, diplomatic sources said yesterday.

Israel and Armenia were among those approached by Ankara, they said.

"We returned to all [the countries offering aid] saying that we would be ready to receive those items," a source said, referring to tents, prefabricated houses and container shelters.

The Israeli government confirmed the Turkish request.

"Turkey has asked us for caravans for the homeless after the earthquake," Yigal Palmor, Israel's foreign ministry spokesman, told the AFP news agency. "We accepted immediately and we will quickly see what we can supply."

Israel's defence ministry said the first planeload of mobile homes was due to fly to Turkey late yesterday.

The move followed direct high-level contacts between Turkish and Israeli officials. The two countries have not been on speaking terms since Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador last month over Israel's refusal to apologise for the death of nine Turkish activists during an Israeli raid on a ship carrying aid to the Gaza Strip last year.

After the earthquake, Shimon Peres, Israel's president, called Abdullah Gul, the Turkish head of state, and Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, called his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In his conversation with Mr Erdogan, Mr Netanyahu mentioned Turkey's help to combat a wildfire in Israel last year despite strained relations and said Israel was ready to help Turkey, according to Turkish news reports.

It was not immediately clear if Turkey's decision to accept Israeli aid may lead to a political rapprochement. Ankara insists relations with its former partner can only return to normal if the Israeli government apologises for the activists' deaths and compensates their families. Israel has rejected the demands.

In a newspaper interview before the turnaround on aid become public, Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, said the issue of emergency support was humanitarian, not political, telling the Posta newspaper in the interview published yesterday that "Israel helping or not helping does not change our position" .

Relations between Turkey and neighbouring Armenia are burdened by a bitter dispute over the death of hundreds of thousands of Armenians during the final years of the Ottoman Empire in 1915. Armenia calls the killings genocide, a term rejected by Turkey. Relations are also soured by the bloody conflict between Armenia and Turkey's ally, Azerbaijan, over the disputed mainly ethnically Armenian region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Ankara and Yerevan have no diplomatic relations and there has been no attempt at reconciliation since efforts to rebuild ties failed two years ago.

In the earthquake-hit region itself, Turkish rescuers continued their search for survivors. Their morale was boosted yesterday when a 27-year-old woman was plucked from the rubble in the town of Ercis, 66 hours after the quake. A two-week-old baby girl, her mother and her grandmother were found alive on Tuesday.

While the rescue operation still produced success stories, efforts to house and feed tens of thousands of survivors encountered serious problems, with the lack of tents becoming a symbol for a perceived failures of the authorities. News reports said some villages in the affected area had yet to receive any tents.

Mr Erdogan said in a speech yesterday almost 18,000 tents had been sent to the earthquake zone. "This is sufficient, but with things getting out of control, it turned out to be not enough," he said in reference to chaotic scenes at some distribution points where fights broke out among quake victims trying to secure a tent.

With aftershocks continuing, authorities have warned people not to return to homes that may have been damaged. Thousands have been living in the open since Sunday and have been trying to keep warm by lighting fires.

Mr Atalay, the deputy prime minister, and other officials said while thousands of heatable tents had reached the region and several tent cities had been erected on football pitches and other open spaces, many survivors refused to move into those shelters and insisted on pitching their own tents next to their damaged or destroyed homes.

"There is a war for tents going on here," Mehmet Ali Birand, a Turkish television host and columnist, wrote in a Facebook message from the earthquake zone. "There are terrifying scenes."

Television footage showed survivors fighting over tents wrapped in white canvas bags.

Mr Birand said there were other problems as well.

"There are people trying to get two or three tents, not just one. Some are selling tents, some use tents as shelter for their animals," he wrote.

tseibert@thenational.ae