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From survival mode to self-care: Quake survivors have come a long way

The needs of earthquake survivors are evolving as they slowly come to terms with the reality of their new lives. While their initial priority was obtaining survival supplies and shelter, their focus is now changing toward the matter of hygiene such as accessing personal grooming items, a relief group official has revealed to TRT World.

“People now want nail cutters. They want toilet paper, shampoos, soaps,” said Memduh Kayiklik, director of the Human and Civilization Foundation’s operation in Kahramanmaras, one of the badly hit provinces. “They also want haircuts. So we have arranged for around twenty barbers (at a relief camp).”

The earthquakes that struck 11 provinces in southern Turkiye and parts of Syria on February 6 have killed over 50,000 and displaced hundreds of thousands of people, forcing them to seek shelter in tents set up by AFAD and other aid organisations. 

The powerful 7.7 and 7.6 earthquakes flattened entire neighbourhoods, shattered families and shuttered businesses. 

The buildings that still stand in Kahramanmaras, the epicentre, are skeletal remains with broken window panes, concrete heaps and furniture dangling from what used to be bedrooms and living rooms. Most are unsuitable for survivors to move back in unless they are rebuilt. 

The Turkish government is already in the process of identifying vulnerable apartments, houses and commercial establishments. The process to register survivors and their needs for future accommodation has already begun.  

Kayiklik’s foundation, known in Turkish as the Insan ve Medeniyet Vakfi, is one of nine registered with the government. It is eligible to receive financial assistance from Ankara and everyday it distributes food among more than 80,000 people across earthquake-hit areas.  

The needs of the survivors have shifted with time. 

“First, all they wanted was bread and water. Many bakeries in Kahramanmaras were either demolished or badly damaged. There is no shortage of food now, we have plenty to feed the people,” Kayiklik said in an interview last week at Kahramanmaras. 

“But the most important thing is that survivors don’t want to feel alone in these crucial times,” he added, almost in a hushed voice as he measured his words and nodded several times before speaking. 

On the night of February 20, another earthquake centred in Hatay sent a ripple all the way to Kahramanmaras, where he had set up a regional office in a school. The false ceilings of the four-storey building shook, sending many mothers with babies and kids running outside. 

“No need to panic. It’s alright now. The earthquake hit Hatay. We’ll be fine,” he announced on a megaphone and returned to work.

In the Guzelyali neighbourhood, not far from the airport of Adana, another earthquake-hit city, a few volunteers sorting piles of donated shoes, jackets, and sweaters echoed Kayiklik. 

“In the first few days, people wanted things like napkins and shoes for their kids. We are not seeing that sort of rush now,” one of the volunteers told TRT World. 

NGOs have played a crucial role in supplementing Ankara’s relief efforts in the disaster-hit region. For any single entity to deal with the aftermath would have been impossible, relief workers said. 

“I have never seen such a disaster on such a scale. It was apocalyptic,” Kayiklik said, talking about foundation-run schools and relief camps in war-torn Bosnia, Kashmir and Syria for years. 

Authorities have overcome some of the problems related to the availability of daily-use essentials within a short period. 

In Nurdagi, some 50 km from Kahramanmaras city, street lights have been switched on – the beams of light creating ghostly shadows in the debris of collapsed buildings and shelters erected by AFAD close to the rubble of their homes.  

Almost every one of the two dozen earthquake survivors from various cities TRT World interviewed spoke about the heavy rain, snow and cold they endured on the fateful February 6 morning.

But two weeks later, relief workers said that people appeared to be over the immediate worries related to cold weather as temperature had increased and they had warm clothes. 

Trucks laden with relief goods continued to whizz through highways going towards areas like Elbistan, the epicentre of the second earthquake.

“We are thankful to everyone – our state, other countries and NGOs for helping us in this time of need. May Allah bless them all,” said Serap, 29. 

But perhaps no aid will be enough to heal the emotional wounds left behind by the disaster. Newly-wed Serap didn’t lose anyone in her family. Her husband held her in a tight embrace as glassware, cupboard and everything in their apartment shook or broke. Their door was jammed and for 20 agonising minutes, they were trapped until a neighbour broke open the door. 

They can’t go back to their badly damaged apartment where they were planning to host family and friends for lunch and dinner. 

A new dining set Serap received as a wedding gift was her prized possession. She wanted to serve food in it to her guests in their home. It was still packed in a box when the earthquake hit. Now it lies broken somewhere among the debris. “It’s so painful I can’t even talk about it,” she said, wiping away tears.  

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