A car drives past collapsed buildings in Antakya, southern Turkey on February 20, 2023 (Picture: YASIN AKGUL/AFP via Getty Images)
By the time I boarded the plane to Turkey, five days following the first destructive tremor that swept the country, the recorded death toll had already passed 30,000.
I had watched the numbers climb each day as I finished up my previous deployment in Pakistan and prepared, not to come home to the UK to see my family as I’d previously planned, but instead to travel straight to Gaziantep.
I hadn’t seen my family in three weeks and I had been looking forward to returning to my wife and our children in the UK. And they had missed me, but they know how important this work is.
I had never seen destruction on such a scale (Picture: Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
I have been with Human Appeal for eight years and in the charity sector for 10 years, my family are accustomed to the all-the hours-work that comes with emergency response.
Being called away at a moment’s notice is the nature of a humanitarian’s role and so rather than take the scheduled flight home, I finished the last of my visits in Pakistan, spent a day with my parents who still live there, before I boarded a flight for Turkey.
The rest of my team was already out there and had been from the very first tremor.
Our organisation had long standing programmes running in North Syria and Gaziantep – health centres, emergency shelters, food provisions, education programmes all led by a regional director.
Despite my many years in the field this was a life-changing moment (Picture: Owais Khan)
His team of experts, many of whom had also lost their homes in the earthquake, had jumped into action immediately. We were the first humanitarian charity on the ground, handing out hot meals to those who had survived the earthquake.
I cannot commend our staff enough, working after their homes had been destroyed and their families having to sleep in cars or emergency shelters.
We were also in mourning, as one of the staff members was confirmed dead. She and her sisters hadn’t been rescued from the rubble in time. Nehle Bitar is survived by her husband and daughter, and it is my duty to see that she is remembered.
Other members of staff were still working while waiting to have their own family rescued from the rubble.
People wait for news of their loved ones, believed to be trapped under collapsed building (Picture: Burak Kara/Getty Images)
A team member met me and my colleagues at the airport and drove us to Gaziantep. He told us how the roads had only just been cleared. Two days ago, covered in the ruins and remnants of homes, offices, shops and high-rises, they had been impossible to drive down. The destruction felt endless.
This was not my first trip to Turkey, I have been before and taken in the sights, the culture and richness of the architecture. As we drove into the affected areas, the shock at what we saw was shattering, large and impressive structures crumbled to the ground. Years of industrialisation and homes and community destroyed in a moment.
Despite my many years in the field this was a life-changing moment, I had never seen destruction on such a scale.
Once we arrived, we joined in the food distribution efforts, handing out over 2,000 hot meals twice a day. The individuals and families that came to us to collect food were living in their cars, in makeshift tents in public parks, while others spent their nights in the few still-standing community centres.
Those who could, had already left Gaziantep and Antkaya, driving to stay with family and friends in the north, which was thankfully barely touched by the earthquake’s destruction.
The pain of the death and devastation will be felt for years to come (Picture: Owais Khan)
Others were not so lucky. While working on the ground in Gaziantep, I met a family who told me how they had just moved homes to another part of the city the day before the earthquake struck.
Their grandmother and grandfather had decided to join them later but their old home had collapsed in the first tremor.
When recovery teams found the elderly couple, they were laid together, holding one another in a final embrace as they left this world.
I wept as I was told this story, and I was not alone. The family told me how the recovery team and the watchers nearby were all moved to tears.
A girl searches the collapsed building (Picture: Burak Kara/Getty Images)
We spoke with many people with similar stories. The most painful were those of children left hidden in the rubble, families halved by the destruction, children not understanding what had happened to their playmates.
The pain and fear hits at a deeper level, emergency accommodation in halls and sports stadiums exist, but many families choose not to use them. Their children are too scared to be in buildings, they have no trust in them.
The pain of the death and devastation will be felt for years to come. The final death toll in Turkey alone is now over 50,000 people and the Turkish government estimates a financial cost of more than $100bn (£81bn), making this earthquake the most deadly and devastating earthquake in living history.
Gaziantep, once a proud city on the Turkish-Syrian border, is now reduced to rubble. This city was home to about 2million people, in more recent years it had also become home to countless Syrians who had crossed the border in search of safety and stability. Their homes have now been taken from them for a second time.
People walk past collapsed buildings on February 8th (Picture: Burak Kara/Getty Images)
Human Appeal has been present in Turkey since 2015 and we are committed to remain in Turkey for as long as the rebuilding efforts take. Our educational programs will continue and change to adapt to ongoing and changing needs.
We will continue to provide meals, as well as heaters and other supplies to make the temporary shelters provided comfortable places for people to live while permanent homes and infrastructure are rebuilt.
But however long it takes to rebuild homes, we know it is going to take even longer to rebuild lives.
You can donate to Human Appeals’ Turkey effort here
Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
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