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Earthquake-Proof, Not Corruption-Proof: Turkey’s Needless Deaths - The New York Times - 04.05.23

Turkish families got wealthy off a construction system rife with patronage. A Times investigation reveals just how fatally shaky that system was - by Ceylan Yeginsu, Rebecca R. Ruiz and Nimet Kirac. Ceylan Yeginsu reported this article from Istanbul, and Rebecca R. Ruiz and Nimet Kirac from Antakya, the heart of Turkey’s earthquake-ravaged region.


The building began convulsing at 4:17 a.m. Firat Yayla was awake in bed, scrolling through videos on his phone. His mother was asleep down the hall.


The region along Turkey’s border with Syria was known for earthquakes, but this apartment complex was new, built to withstand disaster. It was called Guclu Bahce, or Mighty Garden. Mr. Yayla’s own cousin had helped build it. He and his business partner had boasted that the complex could withstand even the most powerful tremor.


So, as the earth heaved for more than a minute, Mr. Yayla, 21, and his 62-year-old mother, Sohret Guclu, a retired schoolteacher, remained inside.


At that very moment, though, Mr. Yayla’s cousin, the developer, was leaping for safety from a second-story balcony.


What Mr. Yayla and his mother had not known was that the system to ensure that buildings were safely constructed to code had been tainted by money and politics. That system prioritized speed over rules and technical expertise.


A New York Times investigation found that a developer won zoning approval for the project after donating more than $200,000 to a local soccer club, where the mayor is an honorary president. Then, when residents raised alarms that the blueprints did not match what had been built, they received no satisfying reply from the local government. The building inspector said that, even after the project had failed its inspection, the developers used political influence to get the doors open.


The apartment complex, in the southern Turkish city of Antakya, was a concrete and stone representation of a patronage system that has flourished under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as he has propelled a construction boom across Turkey for the past two decades.


Undeterred by warnings that the breakneck development lacked sufficient engineering oversight, officials in the capital, Ankara, gave local politicians more power to issue construction licenses for large projects without scrutiny from independent professionals.


Basic suggestions never took off — that civil engineers should have to pass a certification exam, for instance.


That building spree turned middle-class landowners like the Guclus, for whom the Guclu Bahce complex was named, into developers and landlords. Mr. Erdogan, who will stand for re-election on May 14, used construction as a vessel for economic growth and a symbol of Turkey’s progress. Local politicians from all parties benefited from the jobs, housing and off-the-books payments that commonly flowed from it all.


Mr. Erdogan’s office referred questions to the environmental ministry, which did not respond to requests for comment.


The Feb. 6 earthquake revealed the shaky foundation on which so much growth was built. More than 50,000 people died as buildings toppled, crumbled or pancaked. Guclu Bahce, the mighty earthquake-proof complex, was among them. An estimated 65 people died there.


“So many died because they were told that the safest place was inside, and they should not try to leave during an earthquake,” said Fatma Oguz, whose sister died in the collapse.


For the Guclu family, several of whom lived in the building, the collapse created a fatal rift. Survivors have turned on each other amid a lawsuit, a criminal investigation and a bitter search for answers:


Were the buildings doomed to fall by nature of a powerful earthquake? Or did someone cut corners? Who can be held accountable in a system in which blueprints cannot be trusted and nobody agrees on whether the building passed inspection? The inspector says somebody forged his signature. It is unclear if the final project was up to code, and the developers cannot agree on who actually built anything.


As the building shook in February, Mr. Yayla called out to his mother to stay in her room and get on the floor next to her bed. He did the same. They would ride this out safely.


This eleven page article concludes with these sad words:


Sohret Guclu died, along with more than five dozen other residents.


Members of the Guclu family have sued the contractors and the inspection company, alleging construction flaws. Among those they accuse of wrongdoing is Mehmet Guclu, the cousin on whom they had pinned so many hopes.


Sohret’s brother, Yusuf Guclu, said family members were angry at a system of back-scratching and favor-trading that had papered over potential problems.


That system had worked in his family’s favor. The Guclus had lived the Turkish dream, converting their land into a cash cow thanks to a relative’s expertise and connections. Now, Yusuf’s sister was dead and his family was accepting donated clothing.


“We’ve lost everything,” he said.


Mr. Altas was arrested and jailed pending the outcome of the investigation. He has not been charged with a crime. Through his lawyer, he said he had only bankrolled the project.


Mr. Ozturk, the inspector, has also been arrested but not charged. He denies signing off on the project.


And, in a meeting with The Times, Mehmet Guclu appeared shellshocked. He said he would consider speaking publicly about the building, the lawsuit and his family.


But with a warrant out for his arrest, Mr. Guclu soon stopped returning messages.


The last time he was in contact, he was working on a government construction project — part of Mr. Erdogan’s well-publicized plan to rebuild the region swiftly.



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Beril Eski and Elif Ince contributed reporting.


Ceylan Yeginsu is a travel reporter. She was previously a correspondent for the International desk in Britain and Turkey, covering politics; social justice; the migrant crisis; the Kurdish conflict, and the rise of Islamic State extremism in Syria and the region. @CeylanWritesFacebook


Rebecca R. Ruiz is an international investigative reporter for The Times based in London. @rebeccaruiz


A version of this article appears in print on May 5, 2023, Section A, Page 1 of the New York edition with the headline: Turkey’s Ruinous Mix of Greed and Corruption. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

The Guclu Bahce complex, which fell sideways, after the quake. Credit...Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times.



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