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Man’s heartbreaking quest to catch last glimpse of his kin lost in rubble

HATAY — On Ataturk Avenue in Antakya, a lone mountaineering tent is perched next to a mangled heap of iron rebars and concrete. Men in bright orange and yellow luminescent jackets can be seen rushing up and down the debris.

Nearby, excavators are digging into the rubble of multiple buildings that collapsed into each other on the fateful night of February 6, when a 7.7-magnitude earthquake struck southern and southeastern Türkiye, killing more than 40,000 people. 

The tent was erected by Mustafa Kazazz, a 25-year-old man with broad shoulders and trimmed hair. For the past two fortnights, he has barely strayed away from his tent — his dirt-stained pants and worn-out boots poked with holes bear testament to his determination. 

“We have found someone’s limb. We’ll keep you posted with more updates,” was the latest update Kazazz received from two men from AFAD, Türkiye’s disaster management agency, on the morning of February 21. 

Antakya, the largest district in  Hatay, was one of the province’s worst hit. And Kazazz lost his entire family — his father, mother, two sisters and brother. 

Even with all the heavy-duty machines and modern devices, locating and extracting bodies is a long, arduous process. AFAD teams have first to remove debris piece by piece, ensuring heavy concrete slabs remain intact. One wrong step can destablise the concrete wreckage and crush the bodies stuck underneath. 

The earthquakes of magnitudes 7.7 and 7.6 have left in their wake stories of pain, grief and longing. 

Tens of thousands of survivors are living in tents. Many have moved to other cities. Authorities have dug out thousands of bodies and buried hundreds of unidentified ones. The search for missing people — all presumed dead by now — continues. 

Across the district, government and relief organisations have set up temporary tent cities with hundreds of kitchens and mobile toilets. Lentils and beans are made in large pots, tea being distributed from kiosks run by different municipalities. 

While bodies are being pulled out in the absence of their next of kin, Kazazz refuses to leave his family members behind in the mountain-high pile of debris. For him, time stopped at 4:17 am on February 6. 

Kazazz is a translator and works in Trabzon as a tour guide — a somewhat better-paying job than he would have found in Antakya that has helped him save enough money to support his family from afar. 

Upon hearing the news of the twin earthquakes, he drove back to his hometown with a friend in a rented car and reached the seven-storey residential building where his family lived — on the first floor — within a day. He pushed through the chaos and traffic jams while information about the scale of the disaster slowly trickled in.

“I found a sledgehammer and frantically began to dig a hole,” he says. Kazazz was able to find the bodies of his mother and one sister — those were the only ones his bulky body allowed him to reach as he crawled into crevices in the rubble. 

He attended the funeral of his mother and sister, who were buried in a government-managed graveyard carved out for the earthquake victims in the Narlica neighbhourhood. 

At times, Kazazz finds himself hoping against hope, convincing himself that his brother might still be alive underneath the rubble.

“My brother is a strong guy. I know he can make it,” he says, his voice drowned by the noise of the excavators and other digging machines being used by AFAD to break heavy concrete slabs. 

Although the window of opportunity for rescues closed over a week ago, Kazazz’s hope to see his brother alive is a clear symptom of his grief.

Just two days before the disaster hit the nation, Kazazz had come to see his family in Antakya after an absence of two long years. “I couldn’t come here often enough because I was the one making a living and supporting the household,” he says. 

His mother had found a match for him named Fatima. The duo got engaged during the last week of January. On his short visit just before the earthquakes, he and his mother went shopping for gold and discussed other arrangements for his forthcoming marriage. 

He returned to Trabzon on February 5 — a day before the earthquakes struck.  His would-be bride also died, her body found buried in rubble in another neighbourhood. 

On February 20, Kazazz stood outside his tent watching AFAD workers pull 11 bodies out from the rubble of a building that had stood next to his family’s home. The bodies were found lying under what would have been a stairwell, indicating that the victims might have attempted to rush out down the stairs, but weren’t able to make it out in time. 

Observing the corpses, Kazazz felt he might be getting closer to giving his remaining family members proper burials. But a few hours later, when yet another earthquake struck Hatay on Monday evening, shaking the broken buildings and debris left behind by the initial quakes just two weeks earlier, workers excavating the rubble of his home ran for their lives — as did everyone else. 

“I lost my whole family in one day… Allah, please don’t do this to someone else,” he says, breaking into tears as a gust of wind blows dirt into the air. 

By Wednesday afternoon, he was standing his ground, steadfast in his commitment to find the bodies of his loved ones. But no word came from the AFAD workers as they continued removing the debris with care.  

“My mother wanted me to get married so badly. She wanted to see her grandchildren,” he says. “I wasn’t able to fulfill her wish. I will live with that regret for the rest of my life.”

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