Turkish earthquake unites Syrian and Turk volunteers with shared sense of loss

Turkish earthquake unites Syrian and Turk volunteers with shared sense of loss

He did not hesitate for a second: on the very first day of the earthquake, Hussein El Mahmoud, 30, drove hours from Tall Abyad, a Syrian town at the Turkish border, towards devastated areas in southern Turkey to take part in the emergency response.

“It’s our duty: You cannot stay idle when people are dying under the rubble”, he said, huddled around a fire for warmth with a dozen friends, Turks and Syrians, who made the journey with him.

The powerful twin earthquakes that hit southern Turkey and neighbouring areas of northern Syria on Monday had killed at least 30,000 by Sunday, while UN aid chief Martin Griffiths said the death toll could rise “double or more”.

According to some experts, approximately 200,000 people are still trapped under rubble.

Mr El Mahmoud and his friends reached Antakya on Thursday, the capital of Hatay province which has been completely wiped out by the earthquake. On their way, they stopped in Adiyaman and Kahramanmaras, two other heavily affected locations.

They have been sleeping for days in their cars, amid freezing temperatures. “Of course it’s exhausting, but it does not matter,” he said.

He added that they have been paying all expenses from their own pockets.

The group of volunteers set up a makeshift settlement in front of a wrecked building in the northern part of Antakya, where a crane is digging through the debris under the blinding light of a powerful projector, one of the rare lighting sources left in the pitch black city.

Mr El Mahmoud said that he is volunteering with his friends in the rescue search. “We are working with our hands”, he said, placing his palms upwards to show the cracking and callouses that come with intense manual labour. His mission is to remove debris and dig with manual tools to clear the site, he said.

It is the middle of the night but Mr El Mahmoud and their friends have no intention of sleeping yet.

“I lived through years of war in Syria, I know what it feels like to lose everything, I lost two of my brothers. Helping here is like helping with my own house, it’s a matter of humanity”, he said.

Mr El Mahmoud and his friends are among the many volunteers who packed the destroyed streets of Antakya in a wave of solidarity to help survivors.

In the city left uninhabitable by the earthquake, they sleep in their cars or in the streets under blankets in the freezing cold.

A lot of the volunteers are young people deeply shocked by the disaster. A few metres away, Esin, 28, is standing in front of what used to be a five-story building, wearing a yellow fluorescent jacket.

“I have no words”, she said.

She came all the way from Istanbul with a lorry full of food supplies for the survivors. “This country is my home, helping is my duty”, she added

Even football supporters joined the effort. In the spacious Atatürk park of Antakya, fans of the Beşiktaş football club, one of the three biggest Turkish clubs, are running an emergency camp, home to more than 200 people.

“We offer food, clothes, and medical assistance for the quake-affected family,” said Omer Sark, the head of Beşiktaş’ supporter club, with a black, white, and red scarf — the colours of his team — around his neck.

In the camp, behind a huge “I love Antakya” sign, left unscathed by the quake, volunteers are preparing food and hot drinks amid bags of supplies.

“We financed everything from private funds,” he added.

Some volunteers levelled stark criticism at the government for its response to the disaster. They said that private initiatives had to fill the gap left by authorities in far-reaching areas.

“But you can’t say anything openly, because authorities will censure you”, said a volunteer, who preferred to remain anonymous.

On Wednesday, two days after the massive earthquakes, Turkey cracked down on social media by limiting access to Twitter.

“It is clearly to silence any form of critics, the government wants to preserve their reputation”, the volunteer added.

The topic is highly sensitive. In Antakya, asked about the emergency response provided by the Turkish authorities, a woman, waiting for several of her relatives to be pulled out, dead or alive, from the rubble, seemed cautious. “We had to wait a bit for more advanced equipment but everything is fine now,” she said.

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