“Please be silent,” screamed a bunch of rescue workers who could not afford to waste a single second. Those who had gathered around the mountain of rubble that was once a 14-storey apartment were getting restless and anxious. Some of them were survivors fortunate enough to rush out of the building before it came crashing down, seconds after the earthquake struck. They were now desperately looking for their loved ones. The Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency of Turkiye (AFAD) teams were racing against time.
Moments later, there was an eerie silence. The rescue team members, with the help of their equipment, were desperately trying to listen for any noise—a whisper, a breath, a scream—from under the rubble. The body of a fifty-year-old woman, wrapped in a blanket, was taken out. Cries of her three children pierced the eerie silence. Her eldest daughter, in a state of shock, started sobbing loudly. Those gathered around were emotional. The three siblings are now orphans.
“You are now the mother of this family, you have to stay strong,” the nurse said while trying to calm the young woman, Ayşe, 22, who is still screaming and crying. She looks at her brothers, aged 19 and 14, and gives them a hug. Just a few hours ago, the three siblings had a family, and a home. The earthquake had changed their lives forever.
Ayşe, who was studying at a university in Istanbul, had rushed down to Hatay province as soon as she learnt that a massive earthquake had hit the region. “My home has collapsed, my parents are dead. Most of my relatives live in Hatay. They are still waiting to be rescued. I don’t have a place to go. It is my last year at school. I was granted a scholarship for a Master’s programme abroad. But now, as my parents are no more, I will have to work to look after my brothers,” she says.
A Single Mother’s Fight
We leave Hatay, and after driving for about three hours, arrive in Kahramanmaraş—another city ravaged by the earthquake. Dozens of families are gathered in a park, living in makeshift tents, their new homes. I meet Meral Kazak, 38, a mother of three young children. She was sharing a tent with her neighbours.
“When the earthquake struck, I literally rushed out. All I could manage to do was to save my three children. It was the middle of the night. My neighbours helped me out. Now we are sharing the tent with them,” she says.
Meral adds: “My husband left me and our three children five years ago to marry a Syrian woman. Since then, I have been working day and night to provide for my kids. I could hardly get by with what I was earning. Our home is damaged. We can’t go back. I have no one to support me. I don’t even know where to start.”
Meral has no clue for how long she would have to live in the tent or whether she would be able to return to her home. Her three children, who are still in school, are too young to understand the enormity of the situation. The catastrophe is too fresh, and presently, her focus is on surviving and arranging for basic needs—a place to sleep, food to fill their stomachs. Meral takes a stroll down the park. The aroma of fresh kofte (meatballs) being grilled on a barbeque is too irresistible.
She has to wait in a long line to get food served by volunteers who have arrived from the Anatolian city of Sivas. As I walk down the line, I see Seda, one of the earthquake victims, who bursts into tears when she manages to get a kofte sandwich. I approach her and give her a hug. It felt like the only humane thing to do in that moment. It was a heart-to-heart hug, a hug from one sister to another.
“This was my sister’s favorite food,” says Seda as she smells the kofte. Her sister lost her life in the earthquake: “She was my closest friend, the person with whom I shared every joy and sorrow, and all the secrets. She is gone. I don’t even know how I would be able to breathe without her.” Just then Seda’s husband comes out from the car the couple has been living in for the past week and tries to calm her down.
The Missing Sanitary Pads
We meet Zeynep Bozkurt at an oil station near the city of Adıyaman. She asks me something very personal in a low voice. “Do you have any sanitary pads?” One crucial thing that has been missing from aid packages is sanitary pads. It’s an essential item, but people don’t talk about pads openly in this country. In the midst of a disaster, it seems this was not a priority item for those sending aid packages.
Bozkurt is a young architect, who was living a perfect life until the earthquake struck. Now, she feels as if her whole future is buried under the rubble.
“When I went to sleep on Sunday night, I dreamt about receiving flowers and uploading pictures on Instagram,” says the young woman who was set to start her first job as an architect the next day, the day the earthquake struck. “Instead, we woke up with a jolt when the ground started shaking and we had to rush out barefoot, wearing our pyjamas. Monday was supposed to be my first day at work, and look at me now,” she adds.
While most of the media attention is focused on Hatay and Kahramanmaraş, Adıyaman is yet another city where large-scale devastation has happened. However, the city did not receive any aid and no rescue worker had flown in even after two days after the earthquake.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Widening THE GENDER DIVIDE")
Melda Dogan is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul