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How Turkish volunteers helped earthquake survivors cope amid devastation

A teacher and an experienced youth camp chief for the Turkish Red Crescent, Baris Celik volunteered for the Türkiye’s oldest aid group to help earthquake survivors in the country’s southern province of Hatay, which faced large destruction like 10 other provinces in the region.

“It’s very difficult to go through what happened here. As a volunteer, you need to keep your spirit high in the face of so much tragedy to help survivors,” the 48-year-old Celik tells TRT World.

The Kahramanmaras-centred twin quakes, which were categorised as the most powerful earthquakes Türkiye faced in the last hundred years, have led to vast ruin across the country’s southern provinces as well as northwestern Syria. Over 40,000 people have lost their lives across Türkiye and Syria, according to official numbers.

Many relief groups like the Turkish Red Crescent, AFAD, Turkish miners and foreign rescue organisations have rushed to the quake frontlines for search and rescue operations as well as to provide food, clothing, shelter and psychological support to survivors.

“You hear this from many people: It’s a terrible situation to be in. In response to their suffering, we have always told them that we are no different from each other. As a result, we are one and we all are in the same situation and will get out of this situation together,” says Celik. Survivors have always needed to hug volunteers, adds the Red Crescent volunteer.

People were not aware of what was going on in other areas and were asking aid workers what happened in other districts and cities without knowing how large the destruction was, she says. “They were shocked because they lost their loved ones.”

Since her arrival to Antakya, the central district of Hatay, Celik has helped more than 80 survivors including children cope with the disaster in Hatay University’s indoor sports facility, which was opened to shelter survivors.

“We are playing with kids and organise different activities to make them feel better. Nine volunteers work here to help survivors. We do our best to have fun with kids while all of us sleep 2-3 hours each day,” she says. Some volunteers slept outside on cardboards under freezing temperatures while others shared their cars with people whom they met the first time at disaster zones, she adds.

While volunteering in Antakya, Celik witnessed many emotional scenes, too. “As my tears flowed, I saw soldiers, Red Crescent and AFAD volunteers and earthquake survivors working side by side to unload supplies from a helicopter. May God not break our unity and solidarity,” she says.

“While children sleep very little, they are very happy because they are here with us. But I see them crying at times during the day, then they are hugging each other,” she says. “This is an uncharacteristic environment,” she observes.

Spirit of solidarity

Some described a Turkish spirit of solidarity has been witnessed during such a devastating moment.

“We and our friends did their best with the spirit of Kuvayi Milliye (National Forces),” says Serkan Aktas, a 24-year-old volunteer from Türkiye’s Red Crescent, which has mobilised thousands of its volunteers across earthquake-hit areas. Kuvayi Milliye refers to the national resistance force formed during the Turkish Independence War against the occupiers following WWI.

Aktas and his friends helped people move to safer areas across Hatay, as aftershocks continued to shake the quakes-hit region. They also provide food and shelter for those displaced.

“Yayladagi had a population of 20,000 before, but now its population swelled to 135,000 people with migrated citizens from other areas,” says Aktas, a native of Yayladagi, a district of Hatay province which neighbours Syria. Yayladagi also received a big Syrian refugee flow in the past due to the country’s civil war.

Yayladagi is a much safer area compared to Hatay’s other districts like Antakya, Samandagi, Kirikhan, Iskenderun and Hassa, which faced large-scale destruction, according to Aktas.

“We took action from the first hour of the earthquakes, trying to reach people, who were either under debris or outside their houses. More than 100 Red Crescent volunteers were transferred to Hatay’s disaster zones eight hours after the quakes,” says Aktas, who has been a volunteer for more than five years for the aid group.

“There’s debris we scrape with our nails,” Aktas tells TRT World. The volunteers did their best to aid survivors, including helping people bury their loved ones, he adds.

“The seconds when the earthquakes happened cannot be described in words as people cried for help from their apartments. We all begged to Allah ‘please let this earthquake end’. We all wish that it would not happen,” says Aktas.

The situation right after the earthquake was “very dire” as collapsed buildings blocked roads and transportation between neighbourhoods and towns, he says. But after some routes were cleared, they began distributing water, food and other essentials to people across the province.

“We saw an elderly man, who was waiting in front of the debris where his son was under. On a rainy cold day, he made a fire and continued to wait to see rescuers reach his son. On the fourth day of the earthquakes, his son’s dead body was extracted from the rubble, but he told us that he can’t leave the scene because he has no place to go,” Aktas recounts.

While there were initially some looting incidents in Hatay, Turkish security forces were able to rapidly secure many areas by clearing roads and going after the culprits, says Aktas.

“We went to every corner of the city (Antakya) and also other districts and every village several times, distributing water, food and blankets,” says Aktas. “We asked whoever we met ‘what do you need?’ If people need even a hello, we greet them with a hello.”

But the tragic fact is that there are too many casualties across Hatay, as much of Antakya and other districts were heavily damaged, he says.

“Our eyes were swollen from crying.”

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