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Anger grows in Turkey as earthquake death toll passes 20,000 and rescue hopes dwindle

ADIYAMAN, Turkey — As the temperatures plunged, anger started to rise in Turkey over the government’s response to two massive earthquakes this week.

On Thursday, the number of those killed by the tremors in Turkey and neighboring Syria passed 20,000.

With their homes destroyed, thousands spent a freezing Wednesday night amid the debris in the streets of Adiyaman, huddled around small fires and with little shelter. Electricity and water were nonexistent in the southern city.

Fearful of another earthquake, some chose to stay out in the open, avoiding buildings that appeared intact, and to brave the subzero temperatures.

Some grieved silently, while others shouted their despair as the quakes continued to claim more victims. One man burst into an aid organization center and demanded loudly that officials rescue his family.

Perihan Sayar, 60, said she had lost her 10-year-old granddaughter, Ulku, as well as her home.

“I lived alone, in a one-room house,” she said. “Now my house is also gone.”

Others in Adiyaman said they were furious at what they claim is a slow response from the government, and said rescue teams had arrived in the city with the wrong equipment to dig through the rubble. NBC News could not independently confirm this assertion.

“Nobody was here to help us, I have complaints about all the authorities here,” said Nursen Guler on Wednesday, adding that she had one son in the hospital and another who was still trapped under the rubble.

“There are no teams here, everyone is waiting for rescue teams,” she said.

Guler added that people in Adiyaman had supported Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has served as either Turkey's prime minister or its president for the past 20 years, “but now we don’t see him by our side.”

The government’s response has been questioned too in several other cities, where residents also have been forced to sleep in the open, in tents or in temporary accommodation.

“Where is the state? Where have they been for two days? We are begging them. Let us do it, we can get them out,” Sabiha Alinak told Reuters amid the rubble in the city of Malatya on Wednesday.

But the sheer scale of the disaster appeared to overwhelm authorities.

The first of Monday's devastating quakes struck Turkey and neighboring Syria in the early hours, and registered at magnitude-7.8. It qualified as “major” on the official magnitude scale. Hours later, a second quake, registering at 7.6-magnitude, struck nearby.

More than 17,130 people have died in Turkey, according to the country’s disaster management agency. In Syria, over 3,800 people have been killed, according to officials there.

Osman Yıldırım, a civil engineer, said that after the last major earthquake hit Turkey in 1999, a torrent of new regulations were introduced to make buildings more resistant, but the government didn’t go far enough.

“This could have been prevented with the right steps starting 25 years ago,” said Yıldırım, 55, adding that unregistered construction work, corruption and poor enforcement of regulations had put people in danger.

“The government didn’t take necessary steps to minimize risks through urban planning, low-rise buildings, construction codes and strict control,” he said, adding that as a result “new buildings and old buildings collapsed.”

Faced with mounting criticism, President Erdogan said on a visit to the disaster zone on Wednesday that operations were now working normally and promised no one would be left homeless.

Opposition leaders and some social media users also blasted his government’s decision to block access to Twitter for about 12 hours, from Wednesday afternoon to early Thursday, as people scrambled to find loved ones and share information on arriving aid and the location of those still trapped in rubble.

Turkish authorities said they were targeting disinformation and, on Thursday, Erdogan, who has come under scrutiny amid a cost-of-living crisis ahead of a general election in May, hit back at critics saying “dishonorable people” were spreading “lies and slander” about the government’s actions.

Attempts to control the narrative "are likely to fail," according to Yaprak Gürsoy, a professor of European politics and chair of contemporary Turkish studies at the London School of Economics.

“To assume that there will not be any socioeconomic and political consequences of this collective trauma is naivete,” she added.

Source: Alex Holmes reported from Adiyaman, Ziad Jaber from Gaziantep and Aina J. Khan from London

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