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Ahead of Saturday’s Champions League final in Istanbul, The Athletic’s Adam Leventhal visits Turkey for a series of reports examining the impact of February’s earthquakes on the country, its people and their football clubs.

Osman Bozkurt stands on a dusty street in Kahramanmaras, south-east Turkey, squinting into the midday sunshine. He points behind him.

“This is where the house used to be,” he says. “My daughter Meryem, her husband Mustafa and my granddaughter Oyku Nena — she was only one year old — died here.”

What was once a family home is now a flattened area of rubble. “It took nine days before we could remove their bodies from the collapsed building,” says Bozkurt.

He wasn’t here when the earthquakes struck on February 6. He was with his football team, third-tier Adiyaman FK — in his role of technical director — two hours away to the east.

In Adiyaman, the city’s clock tower remains frozen at 4.17am, the time of the first of two earthquakes that day; when everything changed. An estimated 9,000 people died in Adiyaman, and a further 18,000 were injured.

Bozkurt’s family members were among at least 13,000 people who died in Kahramanmaras, with another 10,000 injured. Three amateur footballers who played for the city’s non-league team — Kahramanmaras Istiklalspor — perished. Fourth-tier side Kahramanmaraspor stopped playing, as did Bozkurt’s Adiyaman FK.

In Malatya, north of Adiyaman, Yeni Malatyaspor lost their goalkeeper Ahmet Eyup Turkaslan; the only player from his team to be in the city when the earthquakes hit, as they had been given two days off. His club, and fourth division Malatya Arguvan stopped playing too, along with five other teams along the Anatolian fault line.

“We were not thinking about football at that time, it was not important,” Adiyaman FK president Sait Aybak tells The Athletic. “Our people’s psychological health was the most important. No one from inside the club died but many people connected did, and we had a responsibility to send people to safer places in neighbouring cities with their families.

“Many of the fanatical fans passed away and I wish I was able to spend more time with them, but now they are gone. The city is there but it’s totally different now. There were also some fans who were in the rubble for up to five days, but thankfully they managed to escape.”

One of the most heartbreaking images of the disaster was 15-year-old Irmak Hancer’s father Mesut holding his daughter’s hand in the wreckage of the Ebrar apartments in Kahramanmaras, unable to save her.

It is estimated 1,500 people died at the Ebrar apartments. Only one of the eight blocks that housed a total of 320 apartments still stands. It’s vacant now, and the lives ruined are scattered among the broken bricks, cement and severed foundations: a purple bra, a white T-shirt, some yellow curtains, a sofa cushion. The smell is pungent.

Bozkurt’s stoicism in the face of such despair is remarkable.

“You listen to so many similar stories around here and I have to think that this was simply destiny,” he says. “We can’t take any revenge against anyone. No person came here to kill my family, the building fell because of the earthquake. But right now I have to be strong for my wife, and I also have one other son. I don’t have any option.”

He smiles warmly when he thinks about the last time he spoke to his daughter Meryem and granddaughter Oyku Nena. “The night before the earthquake I had a video conversation with them,” he says. “We didn’t ever get a chance to say goodbye.”

Bozkurt and his son-in-law Mustafa had talked football 24 hours earlier. “Our last game for Adiyaman was against Vanspor and we spoke after the game two days before the earthquake, we exchanged videos too, that was the last time we were in contact.”

The first part of the city’s name Kahraman means ‘heroic’ and Bozkurt was a hero after the earthquake. He went to Hatay — the worst-affected region of Turkey where Hatayspor player Christian Atsu died — to aid the rescue effort where at least 23,000 were killed in the disaster.

“I heard the voice of a man trapped in one of the buildings, he was shouting for help, but nobody was going in because they were scared that it might fall down,” he says. “I ran in and I could see that he only had a small area to breathe.

“His wife was on top of him, it looked like she had been protecting him, but she was dead. I managed to get him out safely.”

Bozkurt thinks he saved five people that day. “Everyone is affected, some families more, some less,” he says. “We have to be thankful for those that survived and be strong.”

On the corner of one of the busy roads in Kahramanmaras, a digger is clearing the rubble away from a collapsed building. It’s where three amateur footballers who played for the city’s non-league team — Kahramanmaras Istiklalspor — died.

The ground where they played along with fourth-tier side Kahramanmaraspor has been demolished. The seats that used to be in the stands are now in a pile in the centre of a large clearing. After the earthquake, the ground became home to local people forced to live in tents in sub-zero temperatures in February and March.

The tents have now gone, and the people have been moved to a container village on the outskirts of town.

Bozkurt didn’t realise they were going to demolish the whole ground until he arrived at the site. “I am sad because of the losses of my family, but this place also means a lot to me because I spent a lot of my childhood here,” he says. He played for the team and worked as technical director at the club.

In Adiyaman, the club’s stadium is still standing but the pitch can’t be seen. It is covered entirely by white tents brought in by the government where families live and is being run as a command centre by the local police. They aren’t sure whether they will be able to play in their city next season or have to relocate elsewhere. “There are now only kids playing football there around the tents,” says Aybak.

Newly re-elected president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said everyone will be rehoused within a year of the disaster.

“So many buildings have completely gone and you can’t live in others that remain,” says Aybak. “So many people need help, it was hugely devastating, one year doesn’t feel logical, but we hope.”

“This place is in a very bad condition, please help. My husband has been under the collapsed building for 30 hours. No one can take him out,” Kubra Turkaslan pleaded in tears on a social media video having escaped from her apartment block in Malatya. “This place is now flattened. Please help.”

Her husband was Yeni Malatyaspor goalkeeper Ahmet Eyup Turkaslan.

“We loved Ahmet. He was newly married. His wife survived, but he passed away,” says Yeni Malatyaspor president Ahmet Yaman. “The building collapsed and received more damage in the second earthquake. He was dead when we reached him. It’s like we were under the rubble with him.”

Turkaslan was the only player from the team staying in that building that night.

“After our last game, I gave all of the players two days off and most stayed in different cities. They were due back on Tuesday morning for training,” explains Yilmaz Vural, Yeni Malatyaspor’s head coach. “But Ahmet returned on the bus with the rest of the staff to Malatya.”

The city with a population of approximately 800,000 was devastated by the earthquake. 70,000 homes either collapsed or were left uninhabitable.

“If I hadn’t given everyone two days off, all of us would have returned to Malatya and perhaps all of us would have died,” says Vural. “There were a lot of players that would have stayed in Ahmet’s apartment. No one survived apart from Ahmet’s wife.”

The collapse of the Trend Garden Residence is subject to an ongoing investigation. CCTV footage from a nearby property shows how the seven-storey building collapsed within three minutes of the earthquake starting at 4.17 am on February 6. Ahmet Turkaslan was one of at least 29 people who died in the building.

“He was always professional, he never caused any problems, he was tough,” says Vural. “Just a few months before he got married. He was a lovely person, a very good person.”

The head coach travelled to the Malatya for the funeral. There were limits on people travelling there at that point owing to fears of further aftershocks. His team-mates weren’t able to be there, just a few members of club staff.

“When I arrived, I spoke with Ahmet’s wife and she told me she was on the window side of the apartment but Ahmet was closer to the inside and only that was the difference (between life and death),” says Vural.

All that is left now is a pile of rubble. Most of the main structure of the building has been cleared but, as with so many sites, there are reminders of the lives that have been torn apart. Bedcovers, curtains, clothes, a rug unceremoniously mixed in with crumbled masonry. People fill up their cars with petrol at the garage next door.

“There will be 70 per cent of the buildings demolished in our city, in the centre of the city it’s 80 per cent,” says club president Yaman. “Everyone is having great troubles because of earthquake. But we will certainly look after Ahmet’s family.”

One of the main roads in the city centre now has a makeshift market stall along the street. For a moment everything looks normal, but step behind and you enter an area that was once the beating heart of Malatya. It’s now just dust and rubble where block after block used to be.

Second-tier Yeni Malatyaspor and fourth-division Malatya Arguvan both stopped playing. Yeni’s stadium was not damaged but a wounded city, with players fearing for their safety and mourning the loss of a team-mate, did not want to play on. “We couldn’t play on when our people were homeless in the snow in the winter,” says Yaman.

Yeni were already struggling financially before the disaster, with a transfer embargo imposed until January 2024. They intend to return next season but know it won’t be easy on multiple fronts.

“We want to explain ourselves but a lot of people passed away, they have no food, they have nowhere to stay. How can I explain to them that the club have football problems?” says Vural, who first managed Malatyaspor in 1986.

“This club gave me my first chance in management when I was 37, I’m now 70. I feel in debt to Malatya’s people. I’m not just a coach here, I have the place in my heart. We have to give the morale back to the people and try to play again.”

Poppies grow among the overgrown shrubs in the stadium car park. The club will move on but — like so many on the fault line of February’s earthquakes — never forget.

(Top images: Adam Leventhal; design: Sam Richardson)



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