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‘Silence!’: Hushed search for Turkey’s quake survivors

Rescuers and civilians look for survivors under the rubble of collapsed buildings in Kahramanmaraş, close to the quake's epicenter, the day after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck the country's southeast, on February 7, 2023.(Photo by Adem ALTAN / AFP)

“Silence, please!” rescuers plead with anguished Turkish families huddled around a flattened building their loved ones lived in until a massive quake killed thousands and upturned millions of lives.

“We can hear a voice under the rubble.”

The families freeze and become animated with excitement at the possibility that someone might be pulled out alive more than a day after Turkey’s southeastern city of Diyarbakır was crippled by Monday’s 7.8-magnitude tremor.

But then, a long, agonizing and potentially fruitless wait sets in.

Officials estimate that 13.5 million people in Turkey have been directly affected by the earthquake-prone country’s most powerful temblor in nearly a century.

It has already claimed more than 4,500 lives in Turkey and 1,600 in neighboring Syria.

But an untold number are still buried under the rubble of thousands of apartment towers — many only recently constructed — that have crumbled from the pre-dawn jolt and its seemingly ceaseless aftershocks.

A beige sofa, a blanket and some pots betray the lives of those buried under the debris of one 11-story apartment complex in Diyarbakır.

It is nothing but dust and ruins now. Almost inexplicably, several buildings stand tall beside it with little to no damage at all.

Turkish police took samples from the collapsed building’s columns for further investigation.

Allegations of flagrant building code violations are rampant across Turkey.

“Two of our relatives died and three were trapped,” said 60-year-old Remziye Tekin, who has been rooted to this spot hoping for good news since disaster struck.

“God, help us!”

‘Everything turned to dust’

Twenty buildings were damaged by the quake in Diyarbakır, a mostly Kurdish city that has suffered from waves of deadly violence between militants and Turkish government forces.

Seven of them have completely collapsed, creating huge gaps in streets lined with apartment towers.

Sleepless, physically exhausted and morally spent, the rescuers tend to discover frightening scenes under all that debris.

At one site, they found the bodies of an entire family — mother, father and two children.

The parents appeared to be trying to shield the children with their bodies when their remains were found, witnesses told AFP.

Baver Tanrıkut, 30, shudders to think about what happened to his mother and sister.

He heard them following him out the door when everyone woke up and ran for their lives when their building began to shake.

“The moment I set foot outside, I started to run and when I looked back, everything turned to dust,” he recalled.

“The building collapsed. I saw my sister buried under rubble up to her waist, bleeding. She was shouting, ‘mum, mum.’ My mum, who could barely walk, was trapped inside.”

‘We will pray’

Tanrıkut was not alone.

Wrapped in blankets, huddling around fires to warm themselves from the freezing rain, or simply reciting the Quran, the survivors have few thoughts other than about those they left behind.

“My mother, my father and sister are trapped in this building,” said 28-year-old Yesim through tears, urging rescue workers to “hurry up.”

“There are not enough rescue workers,” she lamented.

“We want a strong team. The rescue effort is progressing very slowly.”

Local municipality official İsmail Pendik was trying to keep his cool while handling complaints and consoling families at a car dealership that has been converted into a temporary shelter.

The most important thing now, Pendik insisted, was complete and utter silence to help rescuers do their work.

“We need silence,” he stressed. “The next three days are very critical. The rescue teams are working round the clock. We will pray, we will never lose hope from Allah.”

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