The earthquake in Turkey, a new tragedy for refugees from Syria and Ukraine

For Syrians and Ukrainians fleeing violence at home, the earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria is just the latest tragedy.

By Mehmet Guzel, Fay Abuelgasim and Tanya Titova

ANTIOCH, Turkey, February 12 (AP) — When the war in Ukrainethe relatives of Aydin Sisman who were there fled to the ancient city of antiochin a southeastern corner of Turkey that borders Syria.

They may have escaped one disaster, but they found another in their new home.

They were staying with Susman’s Ukrainian mother-in-law last Monday when a magnitude 7.8 earthquake collapsed their building and leveled much of Antioch, in a region devastated by what some in Turkey describe as the disaster of the century.

“We have Ukrainian guests who fled the war, and they are also inside. We have had no contact,” said Sisman, whose Turkish father-in-law was also trapped under the remains of the apartment building, built 10 years ago.

Aydin Sisman, right, rests next to the Ronesans Residence building, a destroyed 12-story block in Antioch, southern Turkey, Thursday, February 9, 2023. Photo: Khalil Hamra, File, AP

As rescuers dug through the rubble, Sisman seemed to have given up hope.

Millions of refugees, like Sisman’s relatives, have found shelter in Turkey as they fled wars and local conflicts in countries as close as Syria or as far away as Afghanistan.

At least 3.6 million Syrians have fled the war in their country since 2011, arriving little by little or en masse and sometimes overwhelming the borders, seeking safety from heavy shelling, chemical attacks and starvation. Another 300,000 have arrived to escape other conflicts and hardships, according to the United Nations.

For them, the quake was one more tragedy, which many were still too shocked to assimilate.

Syrians gather at a shelter in Antioch, southeastern Turkey, on Friday, February 10, 2023. The shelter, run by Molham, a team of Syrian volunteers, was set up shortly after the quake to provide temporary shelter, hot meals and transportation outside the devastated city for the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who fled years ago when war struck their hometowns, only to find themselves once again homeless and displaced. Photo: Hussein Malla, File, AP

“This is the biggest disaster we have seen, and we have seen a lot,” said Yehia Sayed Ali, a 25-year-old university student whose family moved to Antioch six years ago to escape the then-raging Syrian war.

His mother, two cousins ​​and another relative died in the earthquake. On Saturday he was sitting in front of the collapsed two-story building where he lived, and he waited for rescuers to help him remove the bodies from it.

“There is not a single Syrian family that has not lost a relative, a dear one” in this quake, explained Ahmad Abu Shaar, who ran a shelter for Syrian refugees in Antioch that had been turned into a pile of rubble.

Abu Shaar said people were searching for their loved ones and many had refused to leave the city, even though the quake had left the city without habitable structures, electricity, water or heating. Many slept in the streets or in the shadow of the ruins.

Emergency teams search for people among the rubble of a destroyed building in Adana, southern Turkey, Tuesday, February 7, 2023.
Emergency teams search for people among the rubble of a destroyed building in Adana, southern Turkey, Tuesday, February 7, 2023. Photo: Hussein Malla, File, AP

“People continue to live in shock. No one could have imagined this,” Abu Shaar said.

Certainly not Sisman, who flew in from Qatar to Turkey with his wife to help find his in-laws and Ukrainian relatives. “Right now, my in-laws are inside. They are under rubble (…). There are no rescue teams. I went by myself, took a look and walked around. I saw bodies and we pulled them out of the rubble. Some without heads,” he said.

Construction workers searching through the wreckage told Sisman that while the top of the building was solid, the garage and foundation weren’t as strong.

“When that collapsed, that’s when the building collapsed,” said an affected Sisman. He seemed to have accepted that his relatives would not make it out alive.

Rescue teams remove rubble from collapsed buildings in Antakya, southwestern Turkey, Friday, February 10, 2023. Photo: Hussein Malla, AP

Overwhelmed by trauma, Abdulqader Barakat was on his feet and desperately pleaded for international help to help rescue his children trapped under the concrete in Antioch.

“They are four. We took two out and two have still been inside for hours. We hear their voices and they respond. We need (rescue) teams,” she said.

In the Syrian shelter, Mohammed Aloolo sat in a circle surrounded by his children, who escaped from the building that first swayed before collapsing like an accordion.

He arrived in Antioch in May from a refugee camp along the Turkish-Syrian border. He had survived artillery and fighting in his town in the central Syrian province of Hama, but he said surviving the quake had been a miracle.

A crane removes rubble as rescuers search for survivors in a destroyed building in Gaziantep, southeastern Turkey, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023. Photo: Kamran Jebreili, AP

Other relatives were not so lucky. Two nieces and their families were still under the wreckage, she said, choking back tears.

“I don’t wish this on anyone. Nothing I say would describe it,” Aloolo said.

Scenes of mourning and despair unfolded across a region that just days before had been a peaceful haven for those fleeing war and conflict.

At a cemetery in the town of Elbistan, some 320 kilometers (200 miles) north of Antioch, a Syrian family cried and prayed as they buried one of their own. The body of Naziha Al-Ahmad, a mother of four, had been dug out of the wreckage of her new home. Two of her daughters suffered serious injuries, including one who lost her toes.

Turkish rescuers try to pull Ergin Guzeloglan, 36, from the rubble of a fallen building five days after a devastating earthquake, in Hatay, southern Turkey, on February 11, 2023. Photo: Can Ozer, PA

“My wife was good, very good. Loving, kind, good wife, may God bless her soul,” Ahmad Al-Ahmad said. “Neighbors died, and we died with them.”

The graves were filling up fast.

On the Turkey-Syria border, people were placing body bags on a truck waiting to take the remains to Syria for burial in their homeland. Among them was the body of 5-year-old Tasneem Qazqouz, the niece of Khaled Qazqouz.

Tasneem and her father were killed when the earthquake struck the border town of Kirikhan.

Aerial photo showing the destruction in Kahramanmaras, southern Turkey, on Wednesday, February 8, 2023, two days after a magnitude 7.8 earthquake.
Aerial photo showing the destruction in Kahramanmaras, southern Turkey, on Wednesday, February 8, 2023, two days after a magnitude 7.8 earthquake. Photo: Ahmet Akpolat/IAD via AP

“We pulled it out of the destruction, under the rocks. The whole building fell down,” Qazqouz said. “We worked three days to get it out.”

Qazqouz wrote his niece’s name on the bag before sending it to the truck bound for Syria. He prayed as he let her go.

Say hello to your father and give him my best wishes. Say hello to your grandfather and uncle to the whole world, ”she sobbed. “Between the destruction and rubble, we no longer have anything. Life has become very difficult.”

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