Turkey-Syria Earthquake: Clock Ticking Against Harsh Weather Conditions


By Menekse Tokyay

Cansu Cilingir, a choir member and music teacher in the southern Turkish city of Hatay, was singing “Autumn Leaves” just two months ago. Originally an opera singer, Cilingir delivered a moving performance with her mellifluous voice, unaware that in just a short time, tragedy would bring an early end to her career.  

After three days buried under the rubble of Turkiye’s 7.8-magnitude earthquake as she and her neighbors waited for help from a single crane, Cilingir passed away on Wednesday around noon.

“We lost our…lovely friend Cansu. We will always remember her with her beautiful voice, sincerity and smile,” said Masis Aram Gozbek, conductor of the Magma Choir, with which Cilingir had long been a singer.

Over 14,014 people have been killed in Turkiye and 3,162 in neighboring Syria, according to the latest figures, which keep rising. More than 100,000 rescuers are currently working in 10 provinces of Turkiye following Monday’s twin earthquakes.

The first UN aid convoy crossed the border from Turkiye into northwest Syria on Thursday.

Given the geographical extent of the disaster, local citizens have been drawing attention to the urgent need for cranes, diggers and lift operators to remove the debris and hasten search and rescue efforts.

There have been reports from the region that disaster management agency AFAD’s teams could not operate in buildings where they were unable to hear voices.

Rescue teams have urged local citizens who are anxiously awaiting news of their loved ones to remain quiet as they try to find signs of life under debris.

The sister of Taha Duymaz, who made a name for himself with the food videos he shot in his low-income house in Hatay, garnering 1.2 million followers on Instagram, made rescue pleas for her brother and other relatives. She said rescue services had been halted as the teams could not hear victims’ voices from the wreckage.  

Duymaz had posted a video on TikTok just hours before the first quake. His sister believes he might have fainted, which would explain why he could not call for help from under the debris.

AFAD completed its rescue and search efforts in some cities, including Kilis and Sanliurfa.

There have been some miraculous rescues, with people being pulled from the rubble after four days. These, however, have tended to be young people, children and babies — and rarely adults — who have managed to remain safe in a small space under the rubble.

International support in the search and rescue efforts has been notable, with France and Spain having immediately worked to establish field hospitals in the region.

The Turkish government has set up tents and temporary accommodation facilities outside the quake zone, and sport centers, shelters and similar locations were allocated for those who wished to leave the disaster area.

Mobile kitchens and bakeries are also being established with governmental and civil society efforts. A sports center in Kahramanmaras was turned into a mortuary, but several survivors told Arab News that they are in urgent need of shrouds and vehicles to transfer corpses to the cemeteries as victims’ families have had to carry their dead loved ones using trolleys. Many people have said there is a strong smell of corpses in the streets.

Ayse Yildiz, a professional search and rescue worker who previously took part in the catastrophic 7.6-magnitude Marmara earthquake, was dispatched yesterday to the southeastern Malatya province to help with rescue efforts.

An academic by profession who works on international refugee law, she passed the night searching for survivors under a collapsed building and slept a short while on the floor as there was no tent large enough to accommodate all volunteers in the region.

But Yildiz, who after a sleepless night engaged again in an intense rescue operation, is also aware that the clock is ticking.

“We have only been removing dead bodies from under the debris. There is no one alive in these freezing temperatures. Hatay province was less cold than Malatya, but here, the rain and snow threaten the lives of those trapped under the rubble, who end up dying by hypothermia,” she told Arab News.

“We thank all the international rescue teams here who are showing great efforts in helping victims and survivors. I have seen Maltese and Italian teams so far,” Yildiz said.

In some parts of Malatya, aid workers have drawn attention to insufficient equipment and tents where rescue teams can have small breaks and sleep in shifts.

“We are only using human force. I descended into the debris, but I couldn’t remove any of it because it had disintegrated into pieces. I left my little one in Izmir, and I wanted so much to save the life of a child here. It seems impossible. There will be a serious problem with hygiene and disease here after a while,” Yildiz said. 

In the southeastern province of Adiyaman, another zone hard hit by the earthquake, some survivors died from internal bleeding after being rescued.

“My student Nazim Can Hartlap was rescued the first day from the wreckage of the hotel he was staying at, but we lost him afterward because he succumbed to internal injuries. When he came to Eskisehir Anadolu University, he had financial problems, but we found him a place to stay. He worked so hard to be an informed and educated guide,” Meral Unver told Arab News.

In the same collapsed hotel, rescuers also found the bodies of three school volleyball players from Northern Cyprus.

In March, a conference is expected to be hosted in Brussels by the EU to mobilize funds from the international community to support Turkish and Syrian earthquake victims.

In total, a record number of 1,485 rescuers and 100 search dogs were mobilized in Turkiye as part of the EU Civil Protection Mechanism operations, one of its largest search and rescue operations. Twenty-one 21 EU member states, together with Albania, Montenegro and Serbia, offered rescue and medical teams.

European Commissioner Janez Lenarcic, crisis coordinator of the EU’s response, arrived in Gaziantep on Thursday. The EU also sent temporary accommodation units, tents and beds to Turkiye.

In the meantime, as criticisms regarding the speed of rescue efforts have mounted, Twitter has been restricted in Turkiye on Wednesday and many users have reported requiring a connection via a virtual private network. Twitter was a powerful communication tool during the rescue efforts as many people under the debris communicated their locations to their families and the authorities by posting tweets.

Electricity has returned in the streets and avenues of the regions hit by the quake, but the underground main circuits are still being repaired.

“On the first day, bad weather conditions prevented us from…monitoring the region with drones and planes. Now, we are also supporting our rescue efforts with an aerial component,” Vice President Fuat Oktay said during a press conference on Wednesday.

Several celebrities, including well-known singer Tarkan and actor Kivanc Tatlitug, have donated large sums of money to humanitarian efforts.

The World Health Organization estimates that the final death toll may be over 20,000, making it the highest recorded by Turkiye since its 1999 earthquake.

Arab News

Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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