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‘It feels like yesterday’: Turkey’s earthquake overturns lives

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Before the Turkish earthquake, Abdullah Şenel had nerves of steel. But these days, just being inside a house makes him nervous — and it only takes the sound of a plane flying overhead to put him on edge.

“I was fearless in the past, but now a single noise is enough to freak me out,” the 57-year-old former weightlifter told AFP.

“Everything reminds me of the earthquake — even the sound of a plane,” he said.

Last month’s devastating 7.8-magnitude earthquake flattened entire cities, killing more than 50,000 people across southeastern Turkey and parts of Syria.

In Kahramanmaraş, a Turkish city near the quake’s epicenter, survivors remain haunted by the trauma one month on.

“It’s been a month now but for me, it feels like yesterday,” said Adem Serin as he watched heavy machines remove the piles of rubble in the complex of high-rises where hundreds lost their lives.

“We couldn’t get over the shock. I was caught by the earthquake on the 11th floor of a high-rise building,” said Serin, whose wife is five months pregnant.

“I can still hear the screams of people crying for help on every floor. This pain will never go away.”

Efforts to remove the ubiquitous rubble now dominate the city of 1.1 million people.

Workers who arrived from all over Turkey spray water on the debris and rubble-laden trucks trundle along the road waiting to dump the waste into a landfill outside the city.

Clouds of dust

Columns of dust emerging from the clean-up cover the horizon, carried by the wind and generating grey clouds seen from kilometers away, blurring the visibility in the region surrounded by mountains.

“200 to 250 tons of debris is removed here daily, we are irrigating so that it will not disturb the environment and not create dust,” said Eren Genç, of the forestry directorate in the eastern Sivas province.

He said: “We didn’t spot any bodies but yesterday there was a strong smell,” directing a hose at the concrete slabs. “I think it will be done here in 10 days.”

Operators sometimes come across precious objects while working to remove the rubble.

Levent Topal, from the waterworks authority in the Black Sea region, said his team spotted a safe deposit box in the rubble full of dollars, euros, gold and documents.

“We never touch them, we deliver it to the police who find the owner,” he said.

A 54-year-old man took a big risk and climbed to the seventh floor of his building to retrieve items — despite the danger and the more than 11,000 aftershocks that followed the earthquake.

“I know it’s risky,” admitted Veli Akgöz as he loaded a door and curtain rods onto the roof of his car.

His entire family of 13 people, who used to live in five different flats, will now squeeze into a village house.

‘No choice’

Officials say nearly two million people left homeless by the earthquake are now housed in tents, container homes, guesthouses or dorms in and beyond the region — but this is far from meeting the needs of many others.

Some people spend the night in damaged houses because of a lack of tents, despite the authorities’ warnings.

“We are scared but we have no other choice,” said Solmaz Tuğacar, desperately looking for a tent with her neighbors in the city’s main square, where quake survivors line up to get food or tea from aid trucks.

Some residents are mobilized at the neighborhood level.

In one part of Kahramanmaraş offering a panoramic view of the city, a dozen tents are housed in the garden of a local authority’s two-storey offices.

Locals cover the ground of the tents with carpets they pulled from a historic mosque whose minaret fell from the quake.

İbrahim Yayla, a 31-year-old electricity technician, is one of the survivors sheltered in those tents with his two children and wife.

“We are okay now as the weather is nice, but what will happen if it rains?,” he asked, holding his two-month-old baby.

Hairdresser Arif Güçkıran took the matter into his own hands in this neighborhood when the local mukhtar, or head man, ran away after the earthquake.

He stockpiled nappies and dry food including beans and lentils in several rooms of the building to deliver to those in need, but highlighted the dire shortage of cooking equipment.

“The other day a coal-loaded truck arrived down the hill. Before I could even go down to pick them, locals took several bags of them away,” he said.

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