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Turkey rages at shoddy construction after homes topple

REUTERS/Suhaib Salem
A man stands near an excavator working on the site of a damaged building in the aftermath of the deadly earthquake in Hatay, Turke, on February 17, 2023
  • Residents believed their homes would be safe in a quake
  • Government promises to investigate why buildings collapsed
  • Sector officials say 50% of buildings contravene regulations

Residents of a luxury housing complex in southern Turkey thought their apartments were “earthquake-proof” until the structure toppled like a domino in last week’s devastating earthquake, leaving hundreds feared dead.

Now the wreckage of the Ronesans Rezidans, which was advertised as “a piece of paradise” when it opened a decade ago, has become a focus of public anger.

Survivors stand by the pile of debris that was the 249-apartment block waiting for news of loved ones as hopes of their survival fade.

“My brother lived here for ten years… It was said to be earthquake safe, but you can see the result,” said 47-year-old jeweller Hamza Alpaslan.

“It was introduced as the most beautiful residence in the world. It’s in horrible condition. There is neither cement nor proper iron in it. It’s a real hell,” he added.

Eleven days after the quake that killed more than 43,000 in Turkey and Syria and left millions homeless, outrage is growing over what Turks see as corrupt building practices and deeply flawed urban developments.

Turkey’s Urbanisation Ministry estimates 84,700 buildings have collapsed or are severely damaged.

While the Ronesans Rezidans, which translates as “Renaissance Residence”, crumbled, several older buildings near the block still stood.

“We rented this place as an elite place, a safe place,” said Sevil Karaabduloglu, whose two daughters are under the rubble.

Missing Ghanaian international footballer Christian Atsu who played for local team Hatayspor is also believed to have lived in the complex.

Dozens of people Reuters interviewed in the city of Hatay, where the complex stood, accused contractors of using cheap or unsuitable material and authorities of showing leniency towards sub-standard building constructions.

“Who is responsible? Everyone, everyone, everyone,” said Alpaslan, blaming local authorities and building inspectors.

The developer of the complex, Mehmet Yasar Coskun, was arrested at Istanbul Airport as he prepared to board a plane for Montenegro last Friday evening, according to Turkish state news agency Anadolu.

“The public is looking for a criminal, a culprit. My client was picked as this culprit,” Coskun’s lawyer Kubra Kalkan Colakoglu told prosecutors, according to court documents seen by Anadolu, adding he denied any wrongdoing.

According to Anadolu, Coskun told prosecutors the building was solid and held all necessary licences.

Construction boom

Turkey has vowed to probe the collapse of buildings and is investigating 246 suspects so far, including developers, 27 of whom are now in police detention.

“No rubble is cleared without collecting evidence,” said Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag.

“Everyone who had a responsibility in constructing, inspecting, and using the buildings is being evaluated.”

President Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling AK Party has put great emphasis on construction, which has helped drive growth during its two decades in years in power, although the sector suffered in the last five years as the economy struggled.

Opposition parties accused his government of not enforcing building regulations, and of mis-spending special taxes levied after the last major earthquake in 1999 in order to make buildings more resistant to quakes.

In the 10 years to 2022, Turkey slipped 47 places in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index to 101, having been as high as 54 out of 174 countries in 2012.

Erdogan claims the opposition tells lies to besmirch the government and obstruct investment.

Three kilometres away from the Renaissance Residence is a damaged state building connected to Turkey’s Urbanisation Ministry and where locals and activists said vital documents relating to building safety and quality control were scattered among the debris.

Omer Mese, a lawyer from Istanbul, said he had been keeping watch over the rubble and is trying to save what could be vital evidence although some documents had been destroyed as people left homeless looked for anything they could burn for warmth.

“There were a lot of official documents with original signatures. It was essential to save and protect them… so that those responsible for this disaster can be brought to justice,” he said, adding the papers included data on concrete and earthquake resistance tests.

“I read the news about contractors arrested after the earthquake but when we think about this destruction and its extent… there should be more,” he added.

The Urbanisation Ministry said documents would be moved to the ministry archive in the city and were stored digitally.

Building amnesty

Sector officials have said some 50 percent of the total 20 million buildings in Turkey contravene building codes.

In 2018 the government introduced a so-called zoning amnesty to legalise unregistered construction work, which engineers and architects warned could endanger lives.

Some 10 million people applied to benefit from the amnesty and 1.8 million applications were accepted. Property owners paid to register the buildings, which were then subject to various taxes and levies.

The government said it was needed to remove disagreements between the state and citizens and legalise structures.

“Unfortunately the zoning amnesty in our country is somehow considered a public blessing,” Mese said.

“We have become a society that lives by considering it a plus to put something off for a day, but we end up being crushed by the consequences of that. That is the problem.”