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Quake survivors wait amid rubble, to search or say goodbye

Hamid Yakisikli has waited outside the pile of concrete that used to be his house since an earthquake devastated his home in the ancient city of Antakya. He and his two brothers have endured freezing conditions, in big jackets and wool hats, waiting for rescuers to retrieve the body of their mother, Fatma, from under the rubble.

Ever since the February 6 earthquake decimated swaths of Türkiye and Syria, survivors have gathered outside destroyed houses and apartments, refusing to leave.

Hundreds of buildings were reduced to rubble; ancient buildings lie in ruins; and the streets of Antakya’s historic centre were blocked by mounds of debris and furniture, dividing the city into small blocks of apocalyptic destruction. It was the most deadly quake in Türkiye’s history.

Over two million people have left the disaster zone in Türkiye according to the Turkish government. But here in the worst-hit city, hundreds are still waiting. At every corner, a few people look at a pile of rubble, praying for a wife, a sister, a son or a friend.

Yakisikli, a retired cook, was closest to his mother, Fatma. She lived right below him.

He was home when the quake struck. 

“We were on the third floor, and we just found ourselves on the ground,” he said. His mother’s second-floor apartment was deep underground.

Yakisikli and his brothers initially tried to climb the rubble in search of their mother.

One caught a glimpse of her head through the debris — she was lifeless, lying on her back.

Unable to free her body, they began a long wait.

“I can’t have peace of mind without burying her,” said Yakisikli, as he watched an excavator claw at the remains of the building behind his home.

READ MORE: ‘Help as much as you can’: Turks sell precious cattle to help quake victims

Long wait, hope for miracle

The Yakisiklis only slept when the excavators turned off their engines, in a tent pitched in an abandoned school near their former home. There was no water, electricity or toilet in the tent.

“We will not feel good about leaving. We must get her out and bury her and then we see what we have to do,” he said.

The Yakisikli brothers find solace in the company of the living — and the occasional laugh, as they spend the days swapping stories about their travels.

Some people are hoping for a miracle.

On Wednesday, Abdulrizak Dagli and his wife read the Quran and raised their hands to the skies, as they waited for rescuers to retrieve their son and his wife, and a missing grandchild. Their 1-year-old granddaughter was pulled out of the debris alive five days after the earthquake.

Some search for documents they hope could help them rebuild the life they knew; others simply look for memories.

She said she would wait for as long as it takes to get into her home and retrieve what she can. In the meantime, she has applied for a government-issued tent. Being placed in one would make it easier to access organized aid and begin seeking compensation.

READ MORE: Defying odds, Huseyin Berber recounts survival under Türkiye’s quake debris

‘Antakya is destroyed’

On Wednesday, volunteers distributed warm meals and hygiene kits. Some gave out flowers to cheer a sad and gloomy city. Municipality workers cleaned the streets, some with large cracks that snaked through the asphalt.

People have set tents up in open spaces, parks or schools. Some residents slept in cars parked near their homes.

Enise Karaali, 69, and her son Haydar have spent some nights in the car outside their former real estate office, crushed by debris, and others in a tent near their home.

“I used to live really well. I lost a good life now to live in a car or a tent,” Enise Karaali, holding a bowl of pasta offered by volunteers as she reminisced about her dining room table and house with a garden.

In his offices, Haydar Karaali had papers that prove people owe him some $100,000. He won’t leave before retrieving them from under the rubble.

“We will wait. We will keep coming and going,” she said.

A few blocks away, silversmith Jan Estefan and his wife used a garden fork and their hands to sift through the rubble. He and his family came out unhurt, but their business, including his silver and collection of ancient coins, were buried.

He asked rescuers to put the rubble in a place where he can sift through it without disrupting their work, and he’s been digging through the pile they made near his shop.

“We must do this if we want to live without relying on anyone,” said Estefan, as he leaned over to inspect a shining object in the dirt. He picked out an old Syrian coin and put it in a small paper bag his wife was holding.

For the Yakisikli brothers, the wait went on for nearly 230 hours, when finally Fatma Yakisikli was pulled from the rubble. Now, they can bury their mother and being trying to move on.

“There is no more life here. Antakya is destroyed,” he said. “There may be thousands of funerals.”

READ MORE: ‘What day are we on?’: Woman extricated in Türkiye on 10th day asks rescuer

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