ERCIS, Turkey - The death toll from last week's earthquake in southeast Turkey rose to 596 on Sunday, the day after authorities stopped searching for survivors and focused on helping thousands of homeless families in crisis.RELATED:Beset by crises, Erdogan has time on his side J'lem sends aid as Turkey calls for pressure on Israel
In Ercis, the town hit hardest by the 7.2 magnitude quake that devastated Van province on Oct. 23, some shops reopened on Sunday, electricity was switched back on in parts of town and one bank's ATM started working.
But with barely any of Ercis's nearly 100,000 residents ready to return to their damaged homes with strong aftershocks still rattling the area, life is anything but normal. One aftershock on Sunday morning registered at magnitude 5.3.
Winter is fast approaching, temperatures plunge at night, and young and old in particular are falling sick in tent encampments set up by relief agencies on the outskirts of town.
The government's disaster management website said more than 43,000 tents
had been handed out in Van. Officials say that is more than needed
because people whose homes are not so badly damaged are demanding tents
as they feel safer under canvas.
"Our house is in good shape but we live in a tent due to fear. We will
go back once the aftershocks are gone and the government says our house
is safe," said Fadli Kocak, owner of a bakery in Ercis, who hopes to be
back in business in a week.
Many people were queuing to register for tents on Sunday, a first step
to having an inspection done of their home, as authorities say they will
hand them out only after verifying that a building is too risky to live
"The problem here is that you can't give 100,000 tents in a town whose
population is equal to that," Yalcin Mumcu, who coordinated search and
rescue operations in Ercis, told Reuters.
"Our people need to the trust the government, too. Everybody is asking
for tents. They need to be patient, if the prime minister says they are
going to build a new, better Van, I am sure they will," he said.
The relief operation is politically sensitive as the southeast is where
most of Turkey's Kurdish minority lives, and the army has been fighting a
separatist insurgency there that has cost more than 40,000 lives since
it first erupted in 1984.
After criticism in the first days of the disaster, state authorities
cranked up relief operations, asking for foreign help providing tents,
containers and prefabricated houses.
Hoards of people in provincial capital Van have also clamored for tents
even though far fewer buildings collapsed there. Villagers in
surrounding hills are seen as more in need because most of their
primitively built houses were destroyed and they would be caught in the
open if there is early snow.
"Most of us sleep outside. The village has received coal and blankets
but no tents," said Mehmet Siddik Demirtas, headman at Yukari Isikli
village, about 10 km (6 miles) from Ercis.
"We go every day to the city of Ercis to ask for tents but they tell us to wait," he said.