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Heroism, sorrow, relief emerge from Turkey's earthquake

Heroism, sorrow, relief emerge from the rubble of Turkey’s earthquake
8 min read
Turkey - Istanbul
10 February, 2023
Rescue efforts continue in quake-hit areas as the death toll surpasses 22,000. Antakya, a city of about 200,000 in southern Turkey, was one of the hardest-hit cities in the country, and here the difficulty of saving lives is becoming more apparent.

Murad Oonay ran several kilometres to his sister’s apartment in Antakya barefoot early Monday morning. The first three floors of the apartment building had collapsed, trapping his sister’s family inside.

Murad and his 18-year-old son begin to dig, grabbing at pieces of shattered concrete with their bare hands. Soon they were joined by another man who knew his sister’s family, and over the hours, volunteers trickled in to help them.

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Murad’s sister lives on the second floor, so he and the others pull the collapsed third floor out of the building. There they find four people, alive. They rescue them and begin to break ground anew.

On Tuesday afternoon, they hear a voice, faint under the rubble. It is Hatija, Murad’s 15-year-old niece. She asks for water. The rescue team cannot yet see her. They call for more volunteers.

Proper equipment has not yet reached Antakya and so volunteers hack at fallen columns and twisted rebar with hammers and angle grinders and pull out chunks of debris with a rope.

At around 9 pm on Tuesday, 36 hours after the initial quake, Hatija is freed and delivered to a hospital by cheering volunteers.

“I knew she was okay when she called me and asked me to bring the makeup kit to the hospital,” Murad tells The New Arab on Wednesday night, grinning slightly as he shows off the cosmetics kit he rescued from the rubble.

Murad and Hatija are just some of the names among the survivors of Turkey’s devastating earthquake which has killed at least 20,000 since Monday. Antakya, a city of about 200,000 in southern Turkey, was one of the hardest-hit cities in the county.

Murad Oonay stands in front of a building that he rescued his 14-year old niece from in Antakya, Turkey. [William Christou – TNA]

Murad’s smile fades after he finishes the re-enactment of Hatija’s rescue. If his niece's survival is a victory, it is a bitter one. She is the only one of the five members of her family found in the wreckage. 

Murad and others kept trying to reach the others in the building well into Wednesday – 60 hours after the quake – but stopped after a professional search and rescue squad deployed sensing machines.

“There were no signs of life,” he says, still dressed in Monday’s pyjamas. He told Hatija that her family was safe and that she would see them after she gets out of the hospital.

“I don’t know how I’m going to tell her,” Murad says.

Around 3,000 people lived in “600 Konut,” an upper-middle-class apartment complex built in the late ’90s, named for its nearly 600 apartments spread out across 60 five-storey buildings. The earthquake knocked down all but five buildings.

It was a family-oriented complex, with a park and playground in its centre. Now, the park has been occupied by families who are waiting for rescue workers to uncover their relatives from the fallen apartments.






The families sit around barrel fires fueled by pieces of broken furniture and sleep on mattresses and couches in the sub-zero temperatures.

Their improvised shelters grow more elaborate as the broken buildings are hollowed out and people get more settled into the limbo of waiting.

Disembodied doors, an antique armoire and couches are pushed together to form open-air recreations of the apartments that used to make up 600 Konut.

Just a few hundred metres from where Hatija was rescued, people scream out for an ambulance.

A playground is occupied by families waiting for their relatives to be saved by first responders in the 600 Konut complex in Antakya, Turkey. [William Christou – TNA]

First responders form a human corridor and carry 12-year-old Kimet to an awaiting ambulance on a plastic backboard, 65 hours after the earthquake happened. Her skin is painted grey from the dust and her expression is blank from shock, unresponsive to the screams of joy from neighbours and family.

“We have a little hope now, of course. We’ve heard their voices, so they must be alive. They will take them out soon,” Gizem Gurbuz, Kimet’s neighbour, tells The New Arab.

Gizem was waiting for her mother, Mine, and her eight-year-old son to be rescued. She had last heard her mother’s voice 18 hours ago but had renewed hope now that Kimet had been rescued.

“The first three days it’s important to find people alive,” Moustafa, a squadron leader of a volunteer unit affiliated with Turkey’s disaster relief agency whose day job is paragliding instruction, tells The New Arab.

Rescue workers widen a hole they made into a building to save a suspected survivor from beneath the debris of a collapsed building in Antakya, Turkey. [William Christou – TNA]

He explains all the ways a person can be injured or die in a collapsed building: internal bleeding, inhalation of smoke or cement dust, or a broken limb that impairs their movement.

He describes having to try to extricate a young boy alive from a building, how the boy had become somehow ensconced in the metal of a bed frame. Cutting the boy out from the frame alone took four hours.

“Some of the families scream at us as we work. They’re angry. They wanted to see the bodies, but we’re not allowed to show the bodies all mangled to the families,” Moustafa says.

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As Moustafa says, the first 72 hours of a natural disaster are a race against time. And to families watching, the first responders’ progress cutting through concrete and metal is painfully slow.

“I understand why they’re screaming at me. I think what I would do if it was my family,” he says, pausing as his eyes well up. “It’s really difficult. I’ve never seen so many people [dead].”

Sitting around a fire about two hours after Kimet was rescued, Gizem debates animatedly with a search and rescue member. She asks why it took so long to rescue Kimet.

The search and rescue member explains the difficulties of saving lives, that when a building collapses, its geography changes and everything mixes together.

“We thought Kimet was on the third floor but turns out she wasn’t there. We had to take another route entirely,” he says, which Gizem seems to begrudgingly accept.

At midnight, a man screams from atop the wreckage of a building gone all sideways. He alternates between picking up pieces of debris and yelling at the crowd of people at the foot of the structure.

“This is the fourth day! They didn’t come yesterday, they didn’t come today! I told one hundred people to come here, but no one has come yet. I will not come down until I bring their dead bodies out,” the man says. His voice breaks as he points to all the buildings lit up by the sodium lamps of the first responders, the building he stands upon pitch black in contrast.

First responders urge him to come down, insisting that they will get to his building. “Your grief is our grief, we will come back here to save them,” a first responder promises the irate man. He eventually relents and with the first responders’ help, descends the wreckage and sits next to a fire.

Due to the immense scale of the destruction, emergency workers have had to triage the situation.

On Wednesday they employ sensing technology to determine which buildings have the best probability of containing survivors, with professional search and rescue teams concentrating solely on those.

Logically, this makes sense. After 72 hours, the likelihood that people trapped under the rubble are still alive is extremely low. Resources are stretched thin. In Antakya, most volunteers are using hand tools to extricate their relatives. And the destruction in Antakya, as mindboggling as it is, is replicated to varying degrees across 10 different cities across the country.

To families waiting for their loved ones to emerge, this logic is hard to accept. If there is even a small chance of them still being alive under the wreckage, how can first responders abandon them in favour of saving another?

In spite of the professionals’ assessment, some volunteers and family members continue to dig into the morning hours of Thursday.

Outside of 600 Konut, the city of Antakya resembles a vision of the apocalypse.

People shuffle past husks of buildings which lean dangerously and cars with entire families’ belongings strapped to the roof head out of the city. A family has repurposed a playground into a shelter, blankets draped over a swingset and children seated motionless on the swings.

Hatay hospital, located in the centre of the city, has collapsed into itself and ambulances are abandoned in the parking lot with doors askew.

The aid response has finally taken form in Antakya on Thursday morning. Officers order their soldiers to set up tent cities, and volunteers distribute winter clothing and food to the needy.

In 600 Konut, hope has evaporated. It has been 78 hours since the earthquake and it is becoming hard to believe that people are still alive under the rubble.

Gizem is sitting in the same seat that she was in the night before when she argued with the disaster relief members. This time she is silent and sobbing. What hope Kimet’s rescue inspired in her is gone and she presumes her son and mother are dead.

“They were like angels,” she weeps.

A first responder who saved a 14-year-old boy on Wednesday night says that he does not know how to feel. When asked if he is happy he saved the boy, he points to a building beside him.


If hope is a calculus, its arithmetic is a strange one. How do you weigh the lives of those you save against those whose bodies you pull out from the wreckage lifeless?

“In there, a mother and child are dead. They died hugging each other,” he says. And he gets back to work.

William Christou is The New Arab’s correspondent in Beirut, covering the politics of the Levant and Mediterranean. He spent two and a half days in Antakya to report on this story.

Follow him on Twitter: @Will_Christou