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Clinton Visits Turkish Quake Victims

Disaster: President lends moral support to residents of tent city near Izmit as he takes firsthand look at recent devastation.

November 17, 1999|JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ISTANBUL, Turkey — On a day of unrelenting rain and raw human misery, President Clinton on Tuesday promised the frightened people of an earthquake-ravaged city in western Turkey, "We will stay with you and work with you."

The president was driven along roads lined by battered buildings and ambled down the brick lanes of the Dogukisla tent city near the city of Izmit for a firsthand look at the physical and emotional devastation that two earthquakes and numerous aftershocks have wreaked on Turkey since August.

As a muezzin called Muslims to midday prayers, Clinton poked into one tent, then another, sharing hot coffee with the earthquake victims and asking if they were prepared for the cold of winter.

For Clinton, the visit was an overseas version of a course he has followed assiduously in the United States: lending a visible dose of presidential sympathy in the aftermath of tragedy.

So, much as he viewed the devastation in South-Central Los Angeles after the riots in 1992 while a presidential candidate, spoke to San Fernando Valley residents two days after the 1994 Northridge earthquake and comforted tornado victims throughout his presidency, Clinton walked among those uprooted by an August temblor.

Afterward, the president, accompanied by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and their daughter, Chelsea, told the residents, "We could imagine what our lives would be like if such a thing were to happen to us, as we have seen it happen to families in the United States.

"Keep your spirits up, keep the smiles on your children's faces, keep helping the people who lost their loved ones in the earthquake," he counseled, "and know that together we will get through this to better days."

The Aug. 17 earthquake centered in Izmit, about 65 miles east of Istanbul, killed an estimated 17,000 people and displaced as many as 400,000 others. Last week's earthquake in Duzce, about 120 miles southeast of Istanbul, killed 547 by government count, and the fear of yet another quake is pervasive.

Clinton said 88 countries had sent aid to Turkey after the temblors, with the United States contributing $14.5 million worth of assistance in the immediate aftermath of August's quake. On Monday, Washington announced the additional donation of 500 large tents to provide winterized shelter for 10,000 people.

At the Dogukisla camp, about 9,000 people are living in 1,200 green military tents donated by the United States. The U.S. military houses 10 GIs in one tent; in Turkey, as many as 20 people are living in each.

One tent was lighted by two bulbs and inhabited by 17 members of the extended Gencenler family, who shared seven mattresses and two small sofas. Rugs had been placed on the brick-paved surface that served as the floor. Two powerful space heaters cut through temperatures that hovered around 40 degrees. A television set was flipped off as Clinton arrived.

"What is the most difficult thing about living in this tent?" Clinton asked. A woman living there, a baby in her arms, replied: "The hard days of winter. And the humidity in the tent. The heat makes a lot of humidity."

At a tent used as a kindergarten, a hand-painted sign, in need of a spell-check, read: "Welcome to Clintion. I love you." Nearby, the Clintons posed with children in a tent where a gym class had been underway. And for long seconds as he plunged into a crowd, Clinton held a baby tightly and pressed a pale cheek to his own.

Parents in the camps and U.S. officials who have worked there reported that children in particular are wary about returning to homes that have been damaged in the temblors. And when the latest quake struck last week, sending shocks to the tent city 60 miles distant, "it really shook people up emotionally," said Valerie Guarnieri of the U.S. National Security Council.

Reaching Istanbul in the afternoon, the Clintons toured the cavernous Hagia Sophia, built in the 6th century. Once a church, later a mosque and now a museum, the marble and mortar structure is a symbol of Turkey's role at the crossroads of great civilizations.

The first family also visited the 17th century mosque of Sultan Ahmet I, known in the West as the Blue Mosque for its pale blue interior tiles. Adhering to custom, they padded shoeless across the carpeted floor.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

How to Help

These aid agencies are among the many accepting contributions for assistance to victims of the earthquake in Turkey.

American Jewish World Service

Turkish Earthquake Relief Fund

989 Avenue of the Americas

10th Floor

New York, NY 10018

(800) 889-7146

http://www.ajws.org

American Red Cross

International Response Fund

P.O. Box 37243

Washington, D.C. 20013

(800) HELP-NOW

Spanish: (800) 257-7575

http://www.redcross.org

Catholic Relief Services

P.O. Box 17090

Baltimore, MD 21203-7090

(800) 736-3467

http://www.catholicrelief.org

Direct Relief International

Turkey Relief Fund

27 S. La Patera Lane

Santa Barbara, CA 93117

(800) 676-1638

http://www.directrelief.org

Operation USA

Turkey Quake Fund

8320 Melrose Ave., Suite 200

Los Angeles, CA 90069

(800) 678-7255

http://www.opusa.org

World Relief

P.O. Box WRC Dept. 3

Wheaton, IL 60189

(800) 535-5433

http://www.wr.org

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