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Turkey earthquake victims still under rubble seven weeks on: ‘They aren’t just bodies, they’re our loved ones’

The i 2023/03/27 Alannah Francis

Survivors of the devastating Turkey-Syria earthquake are forced to live among “mass graves” because bodies remain trapped under rubble seven weeks on from the disaster.

The reports emerged as Unicef said the need for funds to support the humanitarian response remains desperate.

More than 50,000 people were killed by the 7.8 magnitude earthquake, which devastated Turkey and Syria on 6 February.

Rescue efforts saw people pulled from buildings that had been flattened, and continued for several days, but survivors have said many bodies are now still buried under the debris.

Activist Erkan Affan, who has family in Iskenderun and Antakya in Hatay province, which was hit by hte quake, has travelled from the UK to Turkey to support his family and villagers by raising money for food and other necessities.

Mr Affan said many dozens of people who died when their buildings collapsed remain trapped underneath the rubble. While his cousin was rescued alive after three days, his aunt was killed when her building collapsed on top of her, and her body was not recovered for two weeks.

He said: “I walked past a building with my cousin about five minutes from our house. The building was an eight-storey building with at least 20 families living in it and they’re all dead under that rubble, and there’s no truck or there’s no tractor or no construction team there to pull out of the dead from the rubble.

“We’re literally walking around mass graves.”

One survivor, who did not want to give his name, escaped the fourth floor of an eight-storey building in a suburb of Iskenderun with his wife and young daughter. The 37-year-old told i he felt angry that bodies remained under collapsed buildings.

He said: “Those aren’t just ‘bodies’ for us. They are our friends, our neighbours, our family members. Iskenderun is a city but it is a small one. We’ve been here for generations, everyone knows us and we know everyone. We’ve experienced individual losses but also collective ones.”

Filippo Mazzarelli, chief of Unicef’s field office in Turkey’s Gaziantep Province, was not able to confirm whether all villages had been reached but said “there has been a lot of people working really hard to get as many people out of the rubble”.

The Turkish government’s response to the earthquake and failures over the enforcement of building regulations blamed for many deaths are set to be a key election issue. Mr Affan said he believes response in regions populated by indigenous communities has been inadequate due to political divides.

“They kind of feel that we aren’t Turkish or we aren’t part of the country and as a result, when these earthquakes hit, they were very reluctant to send aid to the most affected areas,” he said.

About 2.3 million people, of which nearly half are children, are staying in temporary accommodation shelters, which range from prefab containers and tented camps to makeshift shelters with limited hygiene services, Mr Mazzarelli said.

A 62-year-old survivor, who wanted to remain anonymous, fled his home in an eight-storey block with his wife and children. He is staying in an undamaged family house outside the city. Despite the relative safety, the retiree said: “We are just a bit worried here because it is right on the sea and, God forbid, if another earthquake hits with the epicentre on the sea, then we’ll have to leave this place too.”

Mr Affan said: “Everyone is psychologically traumatised and my cousins are sleeping in a caravan in the front of the house because they don’t want to be in the house. I’m the only one sleeping upstairs.”

Following the disaster on 6 February, Turkey was hit by a 6.4-magnitude earthquake and another measuring 5.8. Thousands of other aftershocks have have been felt

Children’s education has been widely interrupted, with about 1,000 schools severely damaged or completely collapsed. In Hatay province alone, more than 80 per cent of schools have been completely destroyed, Mr Mazzarelli said.

“For them, it is our priority to resume as soon as we can some sort of education, he added: “There’s an enormous need for temporary learning spaces.”

Muslim Aid’s psychosocial support programme for children affected by the earthquake in Syria (Photo: Muslim Aid) © Provided by The i Muslim Aid’s psychosocial support programme for children affected by the earthquake in Syria (Photo: Muslim Aid)

In addition to ensuring the most basic nutritional, sanitation and children’s educational needs are met, mental health support has been a priority for humanitarian organisations from day one.

Survivors, including children as young as three, have been offered treatment for anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

Yusuf Kalam, philanthropy and partnerships manager at Muslim Aid, which is working in Turkey and Syria, said psychosocial support was the biggest need, alongside livelihoods support to restore income.

Mr Kalam said: “Muslim Aid is carrying out psychosocial treatment for earthquake-affected displaced families in Syria. A mobile team was dispatched from our medical centre in Al-Bab to Al-Barazia camp in Syria less than two weeks after the earthquake took place. The team included a medical doctor, midwife, nurses, pharmacist, mental health specialist and other support staff.

“At the camp – a hosting site for recently displaced communities from Jindires, Syria – Muslim Aid’s team reached hundreds affected people, even babies under the age of one. The support ranged from medical assessment and treatment to a number of specialist psychosocial sessions for young children.

“Our experience with vulnerable families and young children in Syria since 2011, has shown us that mental health is deprioritised in meeting the immediate physical needs of those affected by war.”

Working together with Turkey’s ministry of family and social services and other organisations, Unicef has set up 34 hubs across 10 provinces that provide mental health and education services.

“The work we’re doing is through qualified personnel – psychologists, social workers, counsellors – we are trying to help the children process trauma,” Mr Mazzarelli said. “We’re also talking to the parents and explaining to them how to communicate with their children in times of stress and trauma and how to talk to the children about these experiences.”

Muslim Aid is one of a number of humanitarian organisations distributing food and water to earthquake survivors in Syria (Photo: Muslim Aid) © Provided by The i Muslim Aid is one of a number of humanitarian organisations distributing food and water to earthquake survivors in Syria (Photo: Muslim Aid)

The scale of the earthquake’s impact has mounted a huge fundraising response.

Donations to the DEC Turkey-Syria earthquake appeal surpassed £100m in two weeks and the European Union and international donors pledged to donate €7bn (£6.17bn) last week – but humanitarian workers and volunteers say more funds are needed.

Concerned about the lack of aid reaching communities in Hatay, Mr Affan has set up a GoFundMe page to raise money to feed and support hundreds of survivors. He is also working with an organisation to build shower cabins for unaccompanied children to help safeguard them against traffickers.

“I’m raising money to donate to charities and networks and collectives and organisations that are providing food and providing welfare support and hygiene kits,” he said. “The money goes a long way.”

Mr Mazzarelli said: “It is desperate. We need [funding], we need the donor community and also private or public entities that are able to provide support”

Unicef has appealed for $196m (£160m) for its three-month response plan to reach 1.5 million children. So far about $60m (£49m) has been raised.

“The situation is obviously dire. This is a major catastrophe and it’s beyond everyone’s capacity and we need to pull together all the resources we have,” Mr Mazzarelli added.

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