People build a new life in Antakya: “This land is ours”

The coordination centre set up on its own in the left-wing Armutlu neighbourhood in Antakya after the earthquake defies the state's depopulation policy and organises community living spaces.

After the earthquake that struck Kurdistan, Turkey and Syria on February 6, many volunteers from socialist organisations went to the affected region to participate in the relief work and show solidarity. The revolutionary volunteers reached the earthquake area before the state institutions and set up coordination centres in many places.

One of these coordination centres is in the leftist Armutlu neighbourhood in the district of Antakya in Hatay province and was named after Ali Ismail Korkmaz, who was murdered by police during the Gezi resistance in 2012. The centre was founded immediately after the disaster by revolutionary earthquake victims from Hatay and continues to work on many issues ranging from search and rescue operations to meeting the urgent needs of the predominantly Alevi population. The volunteers managed to rescue people from the rubble without any equipment in the first hours after the earthquake.


Mehmet Ali Ceylan is one of the leaders of the coordination centre and an earthquake victim himself. He has lost relatives and acquaintances in the neighbourhood where he was born and grew up. Dozens of families are currently housed at the centre. The volunteers have created an area where the earthquake victims can find emergency shelter and a kitchen to prepare meals. Working in shifts, the volunteers clean and provide security, listen to people's problems and think about what can be done together.

Describing the first hours after the earthquake and the establishment of the coordination centre, Ceylan  said: "On 6 February, everyone was shaken by an earthquake, and I was one of them. I live in the Armutlu neighborhood. At the first moment, the reflex of all of us was just to survive. We were shaken for about one and a half minutes and all we thought about was how to survive the earthquake."


Ceylan pointed out that: "After the shocks were over, we rescued ourselves outside. The process itself was bad, but I want to point out that revolutionary and socialist people have been working here for years and decades. With this work, a seed was planted in the 80s and 90s that is blossoming today and continues dynamically. We experienced the results already in the first hour. At 04:17 we were shaken by an earthquake and within an hour we set up a team on Gündüz Street in the Armutlu district. This was actually a product of the revolutionary struggle, the socialist struggle that has existed here since the 80s. We formed a team of six or seven people very quickly. The weather was bad. It was raining heavily. Children and elderly people had fled the houses without shoes on their feet, they had no jackets. We looked for ways to find clothing and all kinds of materials we could think of to protect ourselves from the weather and the rain. We actually found what we were looking for very quickly."


Armutlu is a place where the revolutionary movement is densely organised and there were large protests, especially during the Gezi resistance. The people in the neighbourhood have an oppositional streak. The revolutionary volunteers, therefore, already had a base when they came to the aid of the people in their greatest desperation and put their own worries aside so as not to leave the people alone in the first hours of the earthquake.

While describing what happened, Ceylan also addressed the importance of this place and noted that it is a revolutionary task to think of the suffering of the people and not of one's own problems in the midst of the limited possibilities of the first moment: "As I said at the beginning, we were able to provide this team thanks to our years of work in the revolutionary struggle. Then we looked for ways to get tarpaulins and mackintoshes to protect the people. Of course, our possibilities were very limited. We stopped work for half an hour to be more rational and think about how we could make it more close-knit and qualified. Only two hours later, we had become a team of ten people. With this team, we very quickly started the search and rescue work in Gündüz Street. After the first moment of self-protection, the search began in the rubble.

While the aftershocks continued, we entered the buildings without tools, equipment, etc. and rescued a woman. We were able to go into a four-storey building without a ladder and pull out a middle-aged woman who had just had surgery. We couldn't save more people because our means were very limited. I mean, we had no resources. We had no equipment, we had nothing. Then we realised that it couldn't work like that, and we had to do things differently. We left a team of two or three people on Gündüz Street to look for possible voices in the rubble. The others went in search of a suitable site to house the survivors. And we found Defne House in the Akdeniz neighborhood."


The life centre set up in Defne House was built from the very first moment with the participation of the people and together with them. The revolutionary volunteers of the first hour were also earthquake victims. They began to organise the first germs of a new life with the same pain as all the other people.

Mehmet Ali Ceylan is also the Antakya representative of the Kaldıraç movement. He said that the revolutionary volunteers were on the ground at a time when the state was not present, looking for solutions: "As I said at the beginning, we as the Kaldıraç Movement have worked here for years, we know every inch of ground. Therefore, we quickly came to Defne House and set up here to create a living space together with the people and our comrades. We had almost nothing, just a few packets of lentils and very few paper cups. We cooked lentil soup very quickly and distributed it in paper cups. When the paper cups were not enough, we cut plastic bottles in half and used them for both the soup and drinking water.

Then came the time when the best examples of solidarity were shown in Anatolia and Mesopotamia. On the second day, our friends came here from all over the country. A very great solidarity was shown. Our cooking place around a cauldron turned into a soup tent. The Defne House was converted into a dormitory and a hospital. Thus, the first phase of a living space took shape. We saw the result of this collective life and with it grew our belief that we could build a new life. Subsequently, the support did not stop, people came here in droves. Two dormitories, an infirmary, a food tent and other tents were quickly built. Everything was done in a very functional way in the sense of living together as a community."


As in the areas around Pazarcik and Elbistan, which were badly damaged by the earthquake and have a predominantly Kurdish-Alevi population, cosmopolitan Hatay is threatened by a mass exodus of locals and the destruction of an ancient cultural heritage. Ceylan stated that since the earthquake, the state has been pursuing a policy of depopulation in these regions. The fabric of Antakya cannot be destroyed, people have seen what has happened and resisted it, he said, continuing, "If we are still able to live here today after more than a month, it is because we have realised that this is only possible through cooperation and coexistence. We have actually seen that here. People have realised that they can build a new life if they act together. At this point it is, of course, necessary to mention something briefly. From the first moment of the earthquake, with the shock effect, a policy of depopulation has been pursued here."

Remarking that the first measure was to evacuate the population free of charge, Ceylan stated: "I am talking here about a gathering full of people who wanted to save their fellow human beings. The first thing organised by the state was their departure. Next, it was propagated that the dam would break, and everyone had to flee immediately. Then the volunteers were pressured and threatened with the words: 'We will not let you play revolution here'. This was followed by an intense presence of the state in the living centres. The state made its attitude very clear. It is the attitude of a state whose history we know. It is about depopulation. We knew this policy and we knew what was going to happen. That is why we did not leave this centre of life for a moment, not for a second. We foresaw it and resisted this policy. Together we organised a collective life. They will not succeed in depopulating this place, we know that."


Ceylan explained that the historical structure and culture of Hatay are wanted to be destroyed and that this has been the goal of the state from the beginning. He concluded: "They will never be able to destroy this city, this historical structure, this culture, this society. We will always find ways and methods to protect this history and culture. We will listen to [Lebanese singer] Fairuz on these streets again. Ali Ismail Korkmaz, Abdullah Cömert and Ahmet Atakan will continue to be present on these streets.

We will cook in big kettles again, as we already do here in the centre. We provided ourselves with electricity and created our own health clinic when there were no government representatives and no one from AFAD and the Red Crescent here. We did that because this land is ours. We are the essential elements of this area, and we will continue this life. We will always keep this culture alive. Just as this life centre has given hope to people, it will always be hope to build our future."