LETTER FROM ERZIN
Ökkeş Elmasoğlu rarely changes his mind. Since his election, this has been obvious to the citizens of this mayor’s small town in Erzin, a peaceful city of 42,000 residents nestled between the high mountains of the Hatay region and the blue of the Mediterranean Sea. Despite pressure and attempts at intimidation, he has tirelessly opposed the privileges of some and the petty arrangements of others day after day.
Since his election in March 2019, under the banner of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Turkey’s main opposition party, the courageous mayor in his early 40s has stuck to the strict-most legality in the field of construction, refusing uncontrolled expansion works, the haphazard elevation of dwellings and unsafe projects – this despite alienating a large part of his constituents. Even a request from a member of his own family, rumored to be his father, did not make him bend.
No casualties or injuries
And then came the terrible earthquake on February 6 that hit the entire region, from Hatay to Diyarbakir, and whose death toll has continued to rise ever since. According to the latest figures, more than 50,000 people have died in Turkey and Syria. One and a half million people are now homeless, and nearly half of the 3.4 million buildings in the area are likely to be demolished or razed, according to the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects.
In Erzin, things were different. Located an hour and a half’s drive north of Antakya, one of the cities most ravaged by the quake, and less than 80 kilometers from the epicenter in Kahramanmaraş, further east, the small, uneventful town was indeed violently shaken, but it recorded no casualties or injuries. No dwellings collapsed. Houses were damaged, sometimes seriously, and the old historic minaret of the downtown mosque broke, but, to everyone’s astonishment, Erzin remained standing.
When the media became interested in this strange island lost in an ocean of destruction and desolation, Elmasoğlu told his story in his own succinct and disarmingly simple words. He told Fox TV, the local channel TV5 and the newspaper Hurriyet over and over again that he was no hero, that he only applied and respected the law like his predecessors, and that in his city, the majority of the houses were either individual or three-to-four stories, with the tallest building being six stories. He stated that he had never authorized any illegal construction.
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“Some people tried to cheat,” he said. “We then reported them to the prosecutor’s office and made the decision to demolish the buildings.” “We must all radically change our mentality. If a house must be destroyed, we must remain rigorous, the state must not grant privileges and the citizen must not seek benefits or wait for yet new amnesty in the construction sector. We all need control measures to be implemented better.”
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