Ayan Guldogan, a journalist working for a local news station in the rural district of Suruc in Türkiye’s border province of Sanliurfa, woke up on the morning of February 6 to find his bed turned upside down by a massive 7.7-magnitude earthquake that shook the region, killing at least 20,000 people in a matter of minutes.
In a phone conversation with Frontline, Guldogan said it took him a while to realise that it was an earthquake. His news instincts initially led him to believe that war had broken out as he had been waiting to cover the Turkish military offensive against the US-backed Kurdish forces in Syria for the past several months.
“It was also snowing in the region,” Guldogan said. “I saw dust and smoke rising from the city of Urfa. It looked like a nuclear bomb had been dropped.” His house had survived the massive earthquake.
That quake was over but another one occurred within 15 minutes just as Guldogan’s family was stepping back inside to escape the freezing temperatures. Before his eyes, Guldogan saw the building where his house was located collapse like a deck of cards. He was homeless within minutes but was lucky to survive.
In the nearby province of prosperous Gaziantep, on the outskirts of its capital, which is also called Gaziantep, Oktay Yalcin, a news anchor who lives on a hill in the outskirts, had a similar experience. Together with his brother, Yalcin rushed to the city centre and found it in ruins. All the large, neon-signed shopping malls, theatres and nightclubs, which had been bustling with weekend crowds just hours ago, lay in ruins. At the time of writing, 700 aftershocks have been reported, one of them with a magnitude of 7.6.
Burak Karacaoglu, who works for Türkiye’s Anadolu Agency news service in Hatay, had to spend hours under the rubble. “I was in the dark, feeling my way with my hands,” Karacaoglu said. “The debris had blocked the door.” When the morning light came, he saw that the quake had fortunately created a hole in the wall. “I widened the hole with something I picked up, I cannot remember exactly what it was,” he said. “I got my children out through the hole and onto the street. Finally, we were out and standing in the street in our nightclothes with no shoes. It was raining and freezing.”
In addition to the epicentre of Kahramanmaras, which is an ancient human settlement, another nine provinces, some along the Syrian border—Adana, Osmaniye, Hatay, Gaziantep, Kilis, Sanliurfa, Adiyaman, Diyarbakir and Malatya—were turned into ruins, affecting around 12 million people in an area of about 100,000 square kilometres. The linear distance of the affected area is around 700 kilometres.
According to aid workers, there are between 2,000 and 2,500 collapsed buildings in Hatay alone with many people trapped inside. The earthquakes and aftershocks damaged around 75 hospitals in these provinces, according to the Ministry of Health.
It took three days to extinguish the fire in the Turkish port of Iskenderun in Hatay province on the Mediterranean coast. The port, which houses the largest of Türkiye’s three naval training centres, caught fire when containers were overturned by aftershocks. Nearby Adana province’s Incirlik Air Base, where US and NATO forces are stationed, also witnessed partial damage.
Gaziantep Castle, a structure more than 2,000 years old, was severely damaged. It will be a challenge for preservationists to repair it.
Francis Dondu, an Indian citizen from Karnataka, was staying in the town of Anitoch in Hatay province, which was entirely razed to the ground. “Our entire system is down and we cannot reach anyone in this situation,” read the message Dondu sent via the Indian Diaspora WhatsApp group. “Do not insist on calling or reaching you, we are completely helpless.” By the evening, however, Dondu reported that he and his family had moved to an emergency camp at a school.
Jews, Christians, and Muslims revere Urfa city, which is located in the severely affected Shanliurfa province. It is known as the “City of Prophets”. Both the Bible and the Quran say that the prophet Abraham was born and lived here before emigrating to Canaan [now Palestine]. The Old Testament prophets Jethro, Job, Elijah, and Abraham all lived in this city. The region was also home to the prophet Moses, who worked as a shepherd in the region for seven years before returning to Egypt.
The temblor occurred at a time when an elaborate earthquake drill had taken place throughout the country several months ago. The “drop, cover, hold” exercise took place on November 12 for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic and coincided with the anniversary of the 1999 Duzce earthquake.
According to Yunus Sezer, chairman of the Agency for Disaster Management (AFAD), some 56 million people were trained for disasters in 2021, and 94,000 drills were conducted in 2022. He said that his agency had the expertise to deal with such disasters but the scale, weather and affected areas were the handicaps. “It’s a race against time,” he said. “We need more and more teams to cover the whole area.”
Search teams from nearly 30 countries, including India, have poured in. However, as the damage is spread over a large area—some of it isolated by the ongoing conflict in Syria—the likelihood of finding survivors is diminishing.
In a difficult situation, heroic volunteers have stepped up to work tirelessly to rescue people from the rubble and provide medical care to the injured. The day after the earthquake, volunteers ranging from trained rescuers to doctors rushed to the Ankara and Istanbul airports and asked the Turkish Disaster Management Authority to organise their rapid relocation to the region.
In the Cappadocia region of Nevsehir province, Namaste India restaurant owner Deppendra Garain opened the doors of his eatery to provide food and supplies to people in need.
“I am cold, father”
There are many stories of survival. The words of Yagmur, a five-year-old girl, moved everyone. When Yagmur was pulled out alive from the rubble 48 hours after the quake in her hometown of Kahramanmaras, she said to her waiting father, “I am cold, father, my hands are all white.” She was stuck in the rubble and spent many hours in sub-zero temperatures. Firefighters who had travelled from Kocaeli province in the northwest had tracked her down using infrared sensors.
In nearby Adiyaman province, six-year-old Hacer Kacmaz was rescued from under rubble in the Besni district. Three hours earlier, the girl’s mother Rukiye Kacmaz had also been rescued from the ruins. One-and-a-half-year-old Ahmet Erbay spent 40 hours under rubble in the city of Gaziantep.
Türkiye is located in a geographic region with fault lines that are prone to tectonic shifts and tremors that can damage infrastructure. Since 1990, Türkiye has experienced about a dozen minor and major earthquakes.
Eyewitnesses who reached Ankara and Istanbul reported that they had to spend the night warming themselves with a fire they had lit outside. They reported that rescue workers were struggling to cope with the freezing weather, shaky infrastructure, and chaos, especially after nightfall.
Local footage from affluent and industrialised Gaziantep and multicultural Hatay showed many residents sitting in the street with small fires. Those able to find a tent were the fortunate ones.
Although building laws in Türkiye are very strict and there have been no permits for building individual houses in urban areas since the 1980s, municipal governments in these affected regions are believed to have relaxed regulations in recent years for political reasons. Most municipal bodies in these areas belong to political parties opposed to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, officially abbreviated as AK.
The quake also comes at a time when Erdogan is fighting his most difficult political battle against a resurgent opposition. He had already announced the date for the presidential and parliamentary elections as May 14, which is a month before the full term.
Türkiye requires the construction of high-rise buildings with apartments instead of individual houses or bungalows. The AFAD has to approve the construction after the building is completed. Once it is 10 years old, AFAD teams check the strength of the building every year.
Almost all buildings in the country are insured. Without this insurance, it is not possible to get utility connections such as electricity, gas or energy. If a building is declared unsafe, residents receive a notification about the same. The local government then proceeds to demolish and rebuild the building free of charge. Insurance companies cover the costs associated with this effort.
Since 1999, building owners have also had to pay an “earthquake tax”, which was introduced after a massive earthquake destroyed much of northwestern Türkiye in 1999 and killed 17,400 people. The revenue—currently estimated at 88 billion liras, or $4.6 billion—is earmarked for disaster prevention and the development of emergency services.
While international organisations are focussed on the damage on the Turkish side of the border, Abdulkarim Ekzayez, who works on the health system in conflict zones, complained that Syrian casualties were being overlooked.
The war between the Syrian government and the opposition as well as between Türkiye and Kurdish fighters has already devastated civilian infrastructure in the region. In the absence of government authority, Ekzayez said that people there rely heavily on cross-border aid from Türkiye.
Staff on the ground told Frontline that the quake had disrupted the only international aid corridor from Türkiye to Syria, exacerbating an already dire humanitarian situation. “It’s chaos,” said Amany Qaddour, regional director of Syria Relief and Development. “We cannot rely on anything coming across the border right now.”
The UN Refugee Agency said that some of the people affected by the earthquake were living in meagre shelters, tents, and partially destroyed buildings.
“After 12 years of civil war, large parts of the infrastructure have been destroyed anyway and there is no assured healthcare,” said the German relief agency Aktion gegen den Hunger.
The Bab al-Hawa border crossing is the only lifeline for millions of people in northwestern Syria as they live in areas that the Syrian government does not control. Typically, more than 1,000 truckloads of aid pass through the crossing every month.
Evidence shows that natural disasters are often an opportune time to resolve conflicts as they increase the likelihood of ceasefires and talks. It remains to be seen whether this disaster can lead to a rapprochement between the Syrian government of Bashar Hafez al-Assad and Türkiye, which has supported the political and armed opposition to Damascus for more than a decade to allow peace to return in the region.
Iftikhar Gilani is an Indian journalist based in Ankara.
- Türkiye’s Kahramanmaras and nine other provinces along the Syrian border—Hatay, Adana, Gaziantep, Malatya, Adiyaman, Diyarbakir, Kilis, Sanliurfa and Osmaniye—were turned into ruins.
- Ayan Guldogan saw the building where his house was located collapse like a deck of cards before his eyes.
- It took three days to extinguish the fire in the Turkish port of Iskenderun in Hatay province.
- Although building laws in Türkiye are very strict and there have been no permits for building individual houses in urban areas since the 1980s, municipal governments in these affected regions are believed to have relaxed regulations in recent years for political reasons.
- While international organisations are focussed on the damage on the Turkish side of the border, Abdulkarim Ekzayez, who works on the health system in conflict zones, complained that Syrian casualties were being overlooked.