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Graveyard of the unidentified: How Hatay is burying unclaimed quake victims

The wooden planks stick out from the mounds of fresh earth as far as the eye can see. Each plank has a number roughly written on the surface – 1…5….50….100….500…1000…2000. The number continues to grow by the hour.

This is the new graveyard at the Narlica neighbourhood in Antakya, one of the worst-hit areas of the February 6 twin earthquakes that devastated southern Türkiye and neighbouring Syria. Another fresh 6.4 magnitude temblor this week added to the misery of the already suffering people.

The burial ground has unofficially come to be called the “graveyard of the unidentified” – a testimony to the sheer scale of death and devastation unleashed by one of the most unpredictable forces of nature.

Two separate sections of the burial ground include graves of Turkish natives of Antakya and Syrian refugees  – the biggest district of Hatay province located along the Mediterranean coast about 680 km from the capital Ankara.  

Even as the grieving country continued to bury the dead – more than 43,500 at the last count – the unclaimed bodies posed a big challenge to the authorities.

Many families have been wiped out, and no immediate relative is left to identify the bodies. In some cases, the bodies require DNA testing for identification. But that has to wait.

Ali Fuat Atik, the governor of the Denizli province, has been tasked with managing the burial process in Hatay.    

“We are trying to do everything we can to manage this operation efficiently. We have even marked the graves using satellite images, so nothing gets mixed up,” Atik tells TRT World

There is a flurry of activity at the graveyard – located off a major road that connects Antakya to Reyhanli, another town in the province.

Police and soldiers man the entrance as medical staff working in the autopsy section walk about hurriedly in protective gear. One worker marks the graves with numbers. Two workers bury the remains in body bags even as more bodies are brought into the prosecutor’s office for identification. Those who can’t be identified or remain unclaimed find a place in the new section of the burial site.    

More than 4,000 have been buried in the graveyard, which has been carved out in an open field. The identity of around 1,700 people remained unknown.

Identifying the bodies and ensuring they get a proper burial has become the top priority of authorities in  Muslim-majority Türkiye where people place significant importance on the final resting place of their loved ones.

More than 1,000 government officials from various departments are working under Atik to run the process smoothly. Mehmet Asik, the chief mufti of Denizli, is one of them. 

“In the first few days, it was very tough for us. Truck after truck would arrive with the dead. We were handling 300-400 funerals a day,” Asik tells TRT World. “We continued to bury them, sometimes working from night till morning.” 

Hatay’s prosecutor has set up a makeshift office to take fingerprints and DNA samples to maintain records. 

A tent pitched next to the graveyard serves as the office and accommodation of the officials, including prosecutors and workers helping to bury victims. Also, imams who perform the funerals too have been lodged in the camp. 

Those brought to Narlica are given a proper religious funeral, says Asik. “First, we are humans and second, we are Muslims. We will not allow any practices against our human and Muslim nature,” says the Denizli governor.

After disaster relief efforts end, the Denizli governorate and municipality will transfer all information and documentation from the graveyard to the Hatay governorate and municipality, according to Asik. 

By Tuesday evening, the authorities at the graveyard had handed over 21 bodies to relatives who could prove their relationship and wanted to move them to another graveyard. 

This process is carried out under the supervision of public prosecutors, says Asik.

When TRT World visited the graveyard on Wednesday, there were only a few relatives present. Most of the graves were freshly dug – mounds of soil and rocks made the entire terrain bumpy. Some graves were adorned with flowers, or some with a piece of cloth. A purple dress of a child hung on the wooden plank of grave number 201. Grave number 01 belongs to an unidentified victim, whose fingerprints are on file and awaiting identification.

“I pray that Allah will not test us with such difficult ways,” says the mufti, referring to the severity of the earthquakes.

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