Listening For Voices, Losing Hope: A Turkish Earthquake Diary
After Turkey's devastating earthquakes, rescue workers continue to work in increasingly hopeless circumstances. Turkish news outlet Diken reports from the scene as survivors wait anxiously for news of loved ones. It's rarely good news.
ANTAKYA — Days after the devastating earthquakes in Turkey, and we are in the Antakya District in the province of Hatay in the south of the country, which borders both the Mediterranean and Syria. It’s one of the cities that was hit the hardest.
We have seen a lot of things and heard a lot of things, but there is a different story on Türkmenbaşı Street. There are people from three nationalities under the wreckage of the Maruf Cilli Apartment building: associate professor Betül Balıkçıoğlu; the mother, father, older brother and younger brothers and sisters of Syrian Husam Muaadm; and members of the Cilli Family.
There are a handful of people getting warm by a fire a small distance from the building. Their eyes take in the destruction.
The volunteer rescue crew have heard voices from the wreckage. There is tense expectation in the air mixed with hope. However, the work of the crew is thorough. Picture such a wreckage: the remains of three apartment buildings were merged into each other; people who are searched for in one building are being dug out of the next one; those who are searched on the higher floors are being found at the lower floors. The building is about to collapse.
The building needs to be turned into total rubble in order to be able to get the people below it out. A heavy construction machine sent by the Ankara Metropolitan Municipality is running constantly.
Waiting desperately for news
Balıkçıoğlu is a member of Hatay’s diminishing Greek Orthodox community. She is an assistant professor at the school of business administration at the Mustafa Kemal University. Her brothers Damien and Yusuf Balıkçıoğlu wait close to the wreckage.
Yusuf does not speak much; he does not eat or drink. He chain-smokes nonstop and is content with staring around on his chair by the fire. He constantly says, “I’m ashamed of being warm here.”
Damien tries to get away from his own thoughts; he frequently chats with the acquaintances around him. He walks around, asks his brother questions to help get himself together. However, Yusuf is unwilling to participate. “I’m not in a state to think,” he says.
Cem Boğusoğlu, a cousin from Switzerland, could not help but jump on a plane to come to Antakya. He felt the duty to console the family and keep them strong.
Those who wait around the wreckage gather around the fire to fight the freezing cold. They comfort each other, give each other hope and discuss the apartment plan. The plan is drawn on paper and handed to the rescuers.
It's the later hours of the evening. The heavy machine suddenly stops. Voices raise, first among the rescuers and then from the people gathered around: “Stop! There’s a hand! We see a hand!” The machine stops. Teams rush to put an excavator on the building that is about to collapse. They are on the part that’s about to break; it’s what used to be the ceiling of the third floor.
Yes, there is something moving in the spot lighted by spotlights and flashlights. People yell: “I swear, it’s a hand wave.” People around the fire rise to their feet and rush to the wreckage. A soldier appeals: “Let them do their jobs.”
"We could only excavate the bones from the burning wreckage just there."
A commanding voice comes from above the wreckage: “Silence! Engines off” The heavy machines that are operating close by stop. Only the rare sounds of ambulances from afar and the sounds of the machines that are operating further away from the wreckage remain. The traffic stops and someone asks: “Does anybody hear my voice?” Over and over….
There is no voice. The crew asks: “Where did you see the hand?” The flashlights are swung to that point, planks are thrown down and the crew reaches to the spot that has raised everybody’s hopes. It’s a plastic bag being tossed around by the wind. It’s hard to accept. They look around again persistently, but there is no hand that waves. There is no movement when they remove the bag. Then comes the voice that ends all hope: “Open the traffic, go on!”
It’s past midnight. The heavy machinery continues running a little longer then stops. Those who wait by the fire, those who have made a makeshift bed with stuff dug from the wreckage and the crews. Everybody retires to their makeshift beds. We, too, go to our car to have a nap for the first time this close to a wreckage. We slept in empty fields during our first three days here in the city in order not to hear the cries for help coming out of the rubble that made us all feel helpless.
People of Reyhhanli, a turkish city in the border with Syria, get warm with fires in the streets after a fast evacuation from their homes.
Celestino Arce Lavin / ZUMA
Listening for hope
When the sun rises, a shout comes: “The soup is ready. Those who are hungry, come!” The crews, those who are passing by, those who wait. Everyone picks up a bowl of soup alongside half a loaf of bread and consume them on cars covered in dust. The heavy machinery starts to operate once more.
The operator of the machine stops after an hour and enters one of the excavated rooms in a slick move. He picks up a portrait of the first president of Turkey Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and hands it to the crews. About another hour later, he jumps out of the booth this time and picks up a Koran from the rubble before getting back to work.
The hours pass by. The building is demolished completely. Crews are listening with special equipment. The same sentences are repeated: “Silence, stop the traffic, don’t walk!” Then the crews call out “hit the wall if you hear my voice,” “rub your hand if you hear my voice.” No response comes. The same commands follows: “Restart the traffic, go on…”
The day turns into the night. The listening crew with the special equipment comes around once more. This will be the final listening.
The routine is repeated. The generators go silent, lights go off, the traffic stops and everybody stands still. The crew calls out into the wreckage in both Turkish and Arabic. Hopes grow because this listening lasts longer than the previous ones. However, the same command is heard: “Restart the traffic, go on!”
The listening crew explains: “Dust is being spilled as wind blows through the rubble; that was the source of the sound. There is no answer to the calls.”
Nothing left but wreckage
A vehicle with green lights appears in a few minutes. It’s a funeral transfer vehicle. The driver asks the cops nearby the wreckage: “Any bodies?” They tell him no. The driver picks up the bodies that were dug from the next building and leaves. Who can say he won’t be needed in a short while?
Everybody retreats back to be by the fire. A construction worker who came from the city of Izmir in the west of the country approaches. He talks about his experiences on the first day that he arrived. One of them lingers in my ears: “We could only excavate the bones from the burning wreckage just there.”
The night goes on and the heavy machinery stops ones more. It won’t start again tonight except for a slight maneuver. The crews climb onto the wreckage once more and finally they ask for a body bag. It is taken from a car and brought up to them as if it’s a declaration that no living bodies will come out of that wreckage.
The body is placed inside the bag and lowered by the machinery. Yusuf rises to his feet, but he is in no condition to walk. We hold him by the arms.
Now there is nothing left.
The only female member of the rescue crew approaches. She asks what the hair color of Betül Balıkçıoğlu is. Yusuf gets heavier in our arms. She says “a family member should come with me, please.” Yusuf attempts to go but people say no. Cousin Cem goes at the suggestion of others gathered around. Then a seemingly endless wait.
Cem returns in tears, with two rescue workers in his arms. He gives Yusuf a hug.
Another member of the Greek Orthodox community in Antakya, who are down to about 1,500 people, leaves this world behind. Journalists, rescue crews and cops gather around to offer condolences; cigarettes are offered. The heavy machinery stops and fades into the background.
The bodies of the mother, father, older brother and younger brothers and sisters of Syrian Husam Muaadm alongside members of the Cilli family are being dug from the wreckage one by one.
This was an apartment building in which people from three nations lived together. Now there is nothing left. Lifeless bodies are loaded into vehicles. People who won’t see each other again leave the site, which no government authority has visited for days. The voluntary crews continue to work, relentlessly.