Antakya and Iskenderun, Turkey – After the earthquakes struck Turkey last week, Erdem Avsaroglu’s sister, her husband, and their two children were trapped in the rubble of their collapsed apartment block in Antakya. Yet they were alive and could communicate with rescuers.
That changed a day and a half later, after a fire broke out on Tuesday night deep inside the rubble, possibly from a generator. Avsaroglu, a professional firefighter, watched in frustration that night as the fire raged for hours.
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After the fire, no more sounds came from the wreckage. Heat still emanated from the building remnants on Sunday, almost five days later, as diggers worked to painstakingly sift through and clear the rubble. Avsaroglu no longer held out any hope for his family’s survival.
“This is the seventh day now, everyone is tired, we just want to find the bodies in one piece. But we can’t find anything, probably they all got burned,” he said.
About 80 people lived in the block – 21 had been saved before the fire and 12 bodies have been found, while the remaining 47 are still missing. The condition of the bodies that have been recovered has added to the anguish. “Some families only collected bones because of the fire,” Avsaroglu said.
Among rescuers and family members, the anger was palpable as questions arose over how the 10-year-old building collapsed, especially when many older surrounding constructions remained standing. Rescuers were collecting what they said was evidence that the supermarket on the ground floor had removed supporting columns.
There was also anger at a lack of support from the state. Another rescuer, Serhat Dede, managed to recover family members from the wreckage, but he had been able to identify his father only from his teeth.
“We’ve had no help for a week from the government. If we had [the right equipment] we could have saved 40-50 people,” Dede said.
As of Monday, the death toll from magnitude 7.8 and 7.6 earthquakes was close to 30,000 in Turkey, and more than 4,500 in Syria. In the ancient city of Antakya, historically known as Antioch, the scale of destruction is hard to fathom amid collapsed buildings everywhere. Almost every building that remains standing is cracked, horribly distorted or leaning perilously.
Missing walls reveal intimate glimpses into abruptly shattered lives – furniture dangling from smashed concrete and twisted metal, smiling family photos on walls, a jacket still hanging in an open closet.
Most people who could leave have fled the city. Those who remain are still sleeping in cars, in makeshift shelters, or in tents provided by rescue services.
In the days following the fire, Avsaroglu and others had to defend his sister’s building from looters, but on Sunday the military was patrolling the streets in force and security had seemingly returned.
Ambulances flashed by, skirting the wreckage that has spilled into the streets, as people were still being rescued alive from the rubble.
But such rescues have become increasingly rare. A rescuer from an Indian team combing the wreckage of buildings in Antakya said they had only recovered dead bodies since they arrived four days ago. “Until now, we didn’t find [any survivors] – we are trying our level best from early morning,” one worker, who declined to give his name, told Al Jazeera.
As he was speaking, a call went up from his colleagues – another body had been found.
On a nearby street, a woman, folded over in grief, sat next to a body bag on the ground.
‘We have to fix ourselves’
In Iskenderun, just up the coast from Antakya, Serizan Agbas’s small textile shop — which she had owned and worked in for more than 30 years — now lies under five floors of rubble, along with an estimated 100 people who she said were missing. Her apartment block – although still standing – is cracked and unsafe.
Agbas and some of her neighbours from the building said they needed tents and other support. “We need psychological support for the whole community. No one is expecting anything from the government, we have to fix ourselves,” she said.
The government has insisted that it is doing everything it can considering the scale of the disaster, which has hit an area the size of Britain and affected an estimated 13 million people. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pledged to rebuild all the areas hit by the earthquake in a year.
In Antakya, where much of the city might need to be built from scratch again, the government and civil society groups were busy trying to help those in need in the city on Sunday.
Turkey’s disaster and emergency agency AFAD was erecting tent cities to house the displaced, while the city’s football stadium has been commandeered to house Syrian refugees.
An exhibition centre outside the city hosted coordination efforts between 26 civil society organisations – foreign and Turkish.
Volunteers worked frantically in the depot, sorting through mountains of donated clothes, food, medicine, and hygiene products. A fleet of food delivery drivers on motorbikes stood ready to ferry urgent items to those in need.
“The biggest pain is coordination between [groups] and volunteers. But it gets better day by day,” said Halil Unsal, a law student who was volunteering for the NGO Toplum Gönüllüleri Vakfı.
“But [actually] we don’t need more volunteers here, we need experts to help, maybe from outside of Turkey, because it’s such a big disaster.”
You can find information on how to donate to earthquake relief efforts here.