Turkish earthquake specialist Ihsan Bal (44) did not know what he saw after the earthquake in his native country, a year ago next Tuesday. “Many people who have lost their homes are trying to build a new life elsewhere.”
The Turkish Ihsan Bal and his Greek wife Eleni Smyrou are both earthquake specialists. They settled in Groningen about 7 years ago, when Bal took up a position as a lecturer at the Hanze University of Applied Sciences. When asked if they talk about earthquakes all day, he laughs. “No, we only talk about it if there has just been an earthquake somewhere,” he says in English.
This also happened on February 6 last year, when southern Turkey and northern Syria were hit by an earthquake measuring 7.7 on the Richter scale. A huge blow that rarely occurs. “When I got up and saw the news, I was very shocked. It suddenly came very close.”
Fourteen days later they had planned a holiday to Turkey. Instead, they traveled through the earthquake zone in a camper. “I have been to many earthquake areas for my work, but I have never seen anything like this. The affected area is very large. That was the first big shock. You can compare it with the distance from Groningen to Tilburg. All along the route we saw collapsed buildings, some of which had been more than ten stories high.”
‘We had nowhere to go’
In those early days there was also a lot of chaos on the streets. There were many people out and about who were desperately looking for their loved ones and household belongings under the rubble. “There were aftershocks all the time. One time we drove into an area, but when we wanted to go back the road was blocked by a building that had just collapsed. We couldn’t go anywhere anymore.”
More than 50,000 people were killed in the earthquake in Turkey and Syria. In the Turkish province of Hatay alone, 80,000 houses have been destroyed or declared uninhabitable.
Ball hasn’t been there since. He follows the developments via Turkish (social) media. The positive news is that the rubble has been cleared almost everywhere and new residential buildings have already been built in some places. Not only for temporary, but also for permanent residence. But of course it is only a fraction of what is needed. “Many people who have lost their homes are trying to build a new life elsewhere. They have moved in with family or friends.”
‘Some cities look like they have been bombed to the ground’
Most aid agencies have long since left the country. They were only there in the beginning to provide emergency aid and to help rescue victims. Bal does not know whether Turkey is capable of completing this gigantic job without foreign help. “It’s too early to say anything about that. Some cities like Antakya look like they have been bombed to the ground. Antakya had a historic city center with a vibrant mix of cultures. It has completely disappeared.”
Bal, born and raised in Istanbul, has no family in the area. He only experienced human suffering second hand. In addition to the dead, there are countless injured people and many people have lost someone close to them. “I don’t know how they deal with that. I personally look at the disaster with the eyes of an engineer.”
Isn’t it strange that he is an earthquake specialist in Groningen, where the damage is in no way comparable to Turkey? Does he not feel the need to work in his native country? ,,Not really. There are plenty of earthquake specialists there. There is not so much a need for scientists like me, but for construction workers and technicians.”
‘I don’t want to scare people’
He regrets that the building rules are still not properly observed. After the major earthquake in 1999, construction rules in Turkey were tightened. “If this had been adhered to, many new buildings would not have collapsed last year.”
Bal has found his niche in Groningen. He says he is not the type of person who gets homesick easily. Not so long ago, he and his wife obtained Dutch nationality. “Only the language remains difficult. I speak Dutch at a basic level, but during my work and for this interview I can express myself better in English.”
The earthquakes in Groningen have clearly decreased in frequency and strength in the last few years. According to him, it is too early to take out the flag. “Earthquakes build up slowly. It can take up to five years before it goes ‘bam’. I don’t want to scare people. The risk is decreasing, but the chance that a strong shock will occur here is far from zero.”