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Turkish mortuary driver lost for words seeing scale of disaster

Fatih Baskurt had already witnessed countless bodies in his 11 years as a hearse driver for the Manisa Municipality in Türkiye’s west. He had even seen the pain and grief of those who have lost their loved ones.

But nothing could have prepared the 35-year-old for the overwhelming number of death and the trauma that followed after two earthquakes struck on February 6, devastating 11 provinces in southern Türkiye.

The tragedy has turned Baskurt numb – the sheer scale of the devastation and the number of dead has become too much for him to handle.

Antakya, the central and most populous district of Hatay, is one of the worst affected areas in the twin temblors, which have killed over 47,000 people in Türkiye and Syria.

One of the most widely-reported incidents involved the collapse of the luxury Ronesans Rezidans complex in which dozens of people lost their lives.

Baskurt was at the scene soon after rescue and recovery work started.

“The bodies of a family of four were pulled out (from the rubble). They were all hugging each other. (The) mother’s hair was tangled in her kids…,” Baskurt tells TRT World as he recalls the heartrending scene. “That was very painful to watch.”

Among the first to arrive in the district, Baskurt leads a team of drivers in charge of six ambulances. “So far, we have transported around 400 bodies,” he says.

Antakya now resembles a bombed-out war zone, with gaping craters and mounds of debris in place of the residential highrises that once dotted the city.

Elsewhere, the broken windows of empty, heavily damaged apartments provide glimpses of a world frozen in time: an overturned brown couch, a broken chandelier, a family portrait on a wall, a baby stroller in what must have been the lounge of a 5th floor flat, torn curtains fluttering in the wind.

Street after empty street stand as mute spectators in what was once a bustling city – most of the people gone, leaving behind ghostly, skeletal buildings.

Rescue and relief workers have set up camps, offices and tea stalls along major roads. Across from the road where a mobile toilet was parked, Baskurt spoke to TRT World.

He admits to feeling a sense of humility whenever he reaches a designated spot to pick up yet another body as family members raise their hands to the sky and someone says, “someone is here to take our dead”.

The bodies are handed over to the relatives only after police take photographs and autopsies are complete. The prosecutor’s office is maintaining a record of fingerprints and DNA samples.

“Relatives have to give some sort of proof to claim the dead. Someone would point out a tattoo on the arm or identify an earring or a piece of clothing,” says Baskurt.

What hurts him the most are the times when he has to transport unclaimed bodies. “Sometimes, I’m the only one besides the imam (prayer leader) and another driver to offer the last rites. That’s very sad.”

For the autopsy, last rites and burial of many of those killed, Baskurt and other ambulance drivers take the bodies to the newly-built graveyard in the Narlica neighbourhood, off the Reyhanli-Antakya Road.

More than 4,000 people have been buried in Narlica, according to Denizli province authorities, which are supervising the funerals and post-burial formalities.

The graveyard in itself is a humbling sight, with hundreds of wooden planks – each to mark one grave – stretched out across the land.

But Baskurt has no time to ponder over such details. Nor does he seeks any appreciation for what he has been doing.

“I’m just doing my job and trying to help people,” he adds.

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