Europe

Turkish dorm fire: Negligence fears as schoolgirls are buried

Family members mourn over a victim"s coffin as they attend funeral prayers for dormitory fire victims in Adana, Turkey on 1 December Image copyright AP
Image caption Six of the students killed were from the same village

Nine-year-old Bahtinur was scared of living in the dormitory for schoolgirls in southern Turkey, her parents said. Conditions were far from adequate, with many children forced to sleep together.

The three-storey building in the town of Aladag, in Adana province, now lies partially destroyed by a fire which killed Bahtinur and 10 other girls, all younger than 14. One member of staff died and at least 22 people, including 16 children, were injured, some after breaking windows in a desperate attempt to jump to safety.

The flames spread quickly through the carpets and wooden floors, and eventually the roof collapsed. Authorities said an initial investigation suggested that an electrical fault was to blame. Six people were detained, including the dormitory manager, whose four-year-old daughter also died in the fire.

Investigators are now examining whether negligence contributed to the tragedy, but they have denied reports that the fire escape was locked. The dormitory's managers have not commented.

This was the only girls' dormitory in Aladag, and the girls who lived here came from impoverished families in nearby villages. Reports said it was run by Suleymancilar, a religious sect thought to be close to the government and one of the many movements in Turkey that operate such facilities.

Image copyright AP
Image caption The fire left the building partially destroyed

Bahtinur came from Koprucuk, a village high up in the Taurus Mountains, 35km (22 miles) from here. The journey there takes two hours in an off-road vehicle.

Her father, Mehmet Ali Bas, said children in the dorm were forced to clean toilets and scrub carpets and staircases - claims the BBC could not immediately verify. "Our children got burned because they did not have a proper room," he said.

Bahtinur's parents had been persuaded by local officials to send her to the dorm, her mother Cemile said. "They came to our house. They begged us. They told us they would look after her well."

But Bahtinur did not seem to be happy. "When she slept by me, she would wake up in the middle of the night. She would say, 'Let go of me, mother'. I couldn't hold on to her. She told me they used to sleep in the same beds. She told me she was scared. 'Mum, I'm scared of being there alone,' she used to say."

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption It took hours for firemen to extinguish the blaze

In the wake of the fire, Turkey's opposition complained of lax regulation and accused the government of failing to provide enough money for school accommodation, forcing poor families to resort to religious dormitories.

Officials have rejected the accusations of insufficient inspections. Deputy Prime Minister Veysi Kaynak said the building had been audited in June as well as last year and that it had the necessary licence.

Another victim was 13-year-old Zeliha, also from Koprucuk. Her father, Mustafa Avci, said her daughter had been taken here after a state-run dorm was demolished for expansion.

As he looked at the partially destroyed building, he said: "I'm unemployed. We're poor. Teachers at Zeliha's school told us to send our daughter here. They said she would be looked after."

"Our kids didn't want to stay at that dorm. Nor did we want them to. But we didn't have any other choice. That's why our children burned to death."

Image copyright AP
Image caption Some of the injured girls tried to escape by jumping out

The case has caused outrage in Turkey, where coverage has been restricted by a media blackout imposed by authorities. And dozens of people who had gathered in Ankara to stage a protest were detained by police earlier this week.

On social media, thousands of users have used the hashtag #cocuklaryaniyor (Children are burning) to share their frustration about what they perceive as government negligence over unofficial dormitories.

Disasters like this are not rare in Turkey. Last year, six children died in a fire which broke out during a Koran course in Diyarbakir, in the south-east.

Image copyright AP
Image caption There was an emotional funeral for the victims

In Koprucuk, emotions were running high at a funeral for six of the students killed. Mothers stood by the coffins of their daughters, crying, trying not to collapse.

As the children were buried, the entire village seemed to be in tears. Questions remain about exactly how this tragedy happened, and how these people will recover from so much pain.

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