Turkish Earthquake

In Turkey, Christine Smith tends to draw attention. The 32-year-old from Whitby, Ont., is not only tall and blond, but she is also a master corporal in the Canadian Armed Forces.

Turkish Earthquake

In Turkey, Christine Smith tends to draw attention. The 32-year-old from Whitby, Ont., is not only tall and blond, but she is also a master corporal in the Canadian Armed Forces. And female soldiers are still a novelty to the Muslim crowds who gather daily outside the medical tent pitched amid the rubble of what used to be the flourishing provincial city of Adapazari. It lies 140 km east of Istanbul, and only 50 km from the epicentre of the earthquake that devastated the country. More than 90 per cent of the city's 200,000 people are now homeless. Most live in the streets, the lucky ones in multicoloured tents. Many are in need of emergency medical care, which was in extremely short supply when Master Cpl. Smith, in her combat fatigues and floppy Tilley hat, arrived last week, along with 200 other members of the Canadian military's Disaster Assistance Response Team.

Smith has been busy ever since. An army medical assistant, she is in charge of vetting patients at the facility that has been hastily erected inside a soccer stadium at Serdivan, one of Adapazari's many sprawling suburbs. For the most part, the afflictions are physical: broken bones, lacerations, viruses and infections, and other trauma suffered during the fearsome quake that so far has claimed an official toll of more than 13,000 lives and could approach 40,000 dead when all are accounted for. But some of the wounds the Canadian team has encountered are less visible. "There's been emotional trauma as well," Smith remarked last week as she circulated among those awaiting treatment at Serdivan's stadium. "A lot of these people can't get any sleep. Many are having recurring nightmares. What they're afraid of is that the whole thing might happen again."

Given the region's geography, astride a major fault in the earth's crust, the fear is not misplaced. Minor tremors have been rattling windows - and nerves - all over the country since the Aug. 17 earthquake, which measured 7.4 on the Richter scale. Only last Wednesday, Ankara's residents fled to the streets when a tremor with a magnitude of 4.7 shook the Turkish capital. During the past century, 108 serious earthquakes have struck Turkey. More than 50,000 people died in the last 30 years alone, well before the big one.

The fact that the most recent quake still managed to catch the country's political and military leadership almost totally unprepared has provoked a swelling chorus of uncharacteristic public outrage. President Suleyman Demirel is now routinely booed in Istanbul's coffee shops and tea gardens when he appears on television. Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit was forced to admit last week that the public "had a right to complain" about the government's reaction to the crisis. Even Turkey's much-vaunted military, normally a revered institution, has been repeatedly raked over the coals in newspaper columns and TV broadcasts. Turkey's parliament, meanwhile, set up a committee to investigate lax building regulations that permitted the construction of shoddy apartments incapable of withstanding major earthquakes, a principal reason why so many died in the disaster.

Despite such measures, authorities in Adapazari remain skeptical about any early improvement of the situation. Erdogan Demirci, a municipal councillor in Serdivan, noted acidly that not a single member of Turkey's parliament had yet contacted the local government. "We haven't heard a word from anybody in Ankara," he remarked with disgust. "They should have been here. They are, after all, our representatives."

As an example of the government's attitude, Demirci pointed to statements from Turkey's right-wing health minister, Osman Durmus, who claimed that the country did not really need any of the massive foreign assistance it has been receiving. On the very day that Durmus, a member of the xenophobic National Movement Party, issued those comments, the members of Canada's DART outfit, who come from bases across the country, were quite visibly helping out as they set up their facilities in Serdivan stadium.

Lt.-Col. Kenneth Chadder, DART's commanding officer, chose to respond to Durmus's comments by gesturing towards some 50 local residents who had gathered on the stadium's soccer field to await the completion of a 30-bed first-aid station capable of handling 500 patients a day. "There's certainly the need to do something here," remarked Chadder, who is based in Kingston, Ont. "This is obviously one of the hardest-hit areas in the country. And there does not seem to be a lot of local resources available to look after the local population." The local media had already pilloried Durmus for his comments.

In its first 24 hours of operation, DART's facility treated 70 patients, and by week's end that had reached more than 200 a day (slowed somewhat by the need for translation). "Right now, what we're seeing is chest and back pain from impact when walls and furniture fell on people," said Petawawa, Ont.-based navy Lieut. Peter Clifford, 38, one of the doctors in DART's 45-member medical unit. "In general, most of the things we're seeing eventually will settle down by themselves. Most of these people have deep bruises. We'll give them pain medication, and treat their symptoms." But Clifford, an Ottawa native, fears there is worse to come for the area's displaced residents during the team's planned 40-day stay. "The major problem of living outdoors in cramped conditions is the spread of epidemic," he said. "Improper sanitation and waste disposal can lead to cholera."

To help prevent such outbreaks, the 40 members of DART's engineering unit were busily setting up a water purification system last week. Once in place, it will allow the team to pull 200,000 litres of water a day from a nearby lake and purify it with the aid of a portable eight-tonne filtration plant. There are, as well, one million water purification tablets, supplied by the Canadian International Development Agency along with 1,000 tents and tarpaulins.

Cpl. Sam Ross, an army engineer from Regina, helped locate the area's water resources during an extensive tour of the region. It was a task similar to one he performed during a tour of duty in war-torn Bosnia in 1996. "It reminds me a little of Bosnia here," he remarked last week as he worked on the water purification plant. "The only difference is the lack of bullet holes all over the place." Nature, it seems, can sometimes wreak as much havoc as mankind.

Maclean's September 6, 1999