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Disaster Zone: The Turkey-Syria Earthquake, Donna’s Story

By Donna PriestleyTraining Co-ordinator and First Aid Instructor SEPAR International

When I was asked about going to Turkey to help with the Earthquake disaster, I jumped at the opportunity, I am a huge fan of humanitarian work and I thrive in looking after and helping people, it’s very important to me. I’m not really sure what my expectations were as I have never experienced anything like it, but I knew I wanted to support in any way I could.

SEPAR International Operations set me up with all gear (and no idea!) to prepare for the trip, with warm kit, boots, tents, sleeping bags, cooking facilities and Starlink satellite internet communications as well as the 24-hour overwatch so the team knew where I was at all times, which was a great sense of relief considering the continual aftershocks and earthquakes.

After saying goodbye to my family and being dropped off at the airport on the 10th February, the reality of what was I was actually going to do hit home and I have to say I was actually really excited to meet the rest of the team at the first pit stop in Istanbul. The second flight was full to bursting with many nationalities and a whole host of Search and Rescue teams with at least half a dozen dogs who gained lots of attention from their fellow passengers, the flight attendants gave a very warm welcome to the teams and thanked them for their support and a big round of applause from all on board. I also had linked up with Rob Gray (Team Leader, Medic, IOSH, Safety Rigger, Scottish Mountain Rescue Team) and Sibel Turhan (Turkish Doctor and Psychologist).

At 3 am on the 11th February we arrived at Adana airport where it was chaotic and full of people who had come to help Turkey, Search and Rescue, Soldiers from Germany, teams from building companies offering their services, journalists and many more. We met our drivers and drove several hours before arriving to Sibel’s family home, where we were greeted with such affection and warmth, tea, and a few hours of sleep. With our drivers and transport in hand, we spent the first day linking up with doctors, nurses, and local charities to find the areas to help in and that appeared to have had less support than the bigger towns and cities. On our journey, we witnessed what literally looked like ghost towns with only the odd person here and there, walking or sitting with their heads in their hands. Buildings that were still standing were completely desolate and in total darkness. Garages were closed with no fuel so every opportunity to fill up with fuel was taken, and to stock up on supplies as we had been advised that there was literally nothing available anywhere due to the devastation. Sleeping overnight in a van with minus temperatures was an interesting evening and very little sleep but I was still so grateful to have a roof over my head and to feel safe with my companions.

Our first visit was to Antakya, where the buildings were completely destroyed, mountains of concrete and rubble everywhere with remnants of what was once a home, roads shut off where buildings covered the roads, bridges partially broken, houses that had either collapsed or were upright but had half of them missing so you could see inside what would almost appear like a dolls house but on a larger scale. People’s bathrooms with toilets stood perfectly, weirdly ironic as there were no toilet facilities available, bedrooms on full show with posters on the walls, and everyday items sat waiting to be used. Families stood around in the streets just watching and waiting for guidance on what to do, where to go, and waiting for news on any family members stuck inside the collapsed buildings, setting up homes in anything that could be utilised as some form of shelter. People were sat in their cars, in parks, and outside their homes with complete shock and dismay on their faces, some crying, some praying, some places were completely desolate with not a soul around and looking and feeling like ghost towns, very quiet and very eery. I don’t think you can describe the overwhelming devastation and destruction, I have never seen anything like it in my life. I said to my colleague Rob, I can only imagine this must be like a war zone as my only real knowledge and understanding of war is through the media and my time as a military family, he agreed it really was the same.

The local empty spaces very quickly became base camps, with tarpaulin, plastic sheets, blankets, occasional tents, and anything the locals could find to keep safe and warm. The temperatures in the evening were very low, it was literally minus degrees in the first few days. The majority of local people were in clothes that I can only imagine had been grabbed as they escaped, found, and donated as the empty parks and spaces became home to hundreds of families. Boxes of clothes and shoes were dumped in the streets, and these had been rummaged through and scattered everywhere, like a crazy car boot sale. Boxes of small plastic water packs arrived and boxes of individually packaged cakes and snacks for families to share. The roadsides that were accessible near these spaces had what looked like local and independent food companies and chai vans giving away free food and drinks too. Then the bigger shelters slowly arrived offering more substantial meals such as soups, a chickpea dish and rice, and mountains of bread.

There were no toilet facilities in some of the areas we visited and stayed and those that had managed to be delivered were rendered useless within a couple of days. There was no access to water for washing anyone or anything, bottles of hand gels were placed in boxes and passed around camps to help with sanitation.

Sibel was our saviour on this trip as she was our Turkish colleague who is a psychologist and works for the NHS, she was a great interpreter and supported Rob and myself, obtaining work for us with a local charity in Antakya. Sibel stayed with the camp in Antakya and helped support the medical teams with her psychiatric knowledge. The locals, some of whom were schizophrenic and had not had any medication and were trying to get back into their homes to their families who had sadly died but they were unaware or had little to no understanding or knowledge of this. Rob and I went to a site where another local charity was building a whole camp with full working facilities, within 48 hours of the earthquake they had sourced a large empty space of land and had gained the support of companies to level and hardcore the ground, they ordered hundreds of tents, and we joined the Turkish Army and firefighters to put them up and secure them. On our second day of working alongside the charity, they had achieved so much more and were installing full working toilet facilities and had several food trucks arriving as permanent facilities. The plan when we left was that families would start arriving by the coach load and would at least have somewhere warm and dry for the long term until life could resume some sort of normality.

Our next leg of the journey was to Iskenderun, we arrived here around 5 pm on the 13th February when the sun was just starting to set and had a lovely rose coloured sky. Iskenderun is a beautiful fishing town that looked picturesque with a beautiful promenade seafront with ships in the distance and then beautiful snow topped mountains sat behind the towns. A little walk further down the road and the cracks literally start to appear, the majority of the seafront apartments looked completely untouched until you ventured closer to the town where a nine-storey apartment building had completely collapsed. AFAD (Turkish Government Disaster and Emergency Organisation) were on scene, they had already dug through the top three floors working their way through each floor to recover approximately 20 people that were still thought to be inside. Sibel spoke to AFAD on our behalf and asked if we could help in any way, they said you are prepared to work a night shift then yes please come back at 8 pm. We had a wander around the centre of the town, the streets were empty, but the central park was full of queues of families waiting for food. There were several tents set up with the standard meal offerings in trays, a tent with any tea flavour you could wish for, a small café where many people were sleeping on the floors, benches, and play park equipment all being utilised as beds.

At 8 pm, Rob and I had our risk assessment conversation, donned our safety gear, and headed up the rickety homemade wooden ladders to start our evening shift at the very top of the building. For a girl who is scared of heights, the ladders were a pretty daunting task and Rob had many laughs at my very wobbly efforts. Once we reached the top there were dozens of people, some directing, some digging, and then lines of helpers on all sides passing buckets of rubble to be thrown over the edge. Rob and I had no understanding of the Turkish language so had to guess what was being asked of us and get by with Google Translate and the little English that some teams spoke. Tensions were very high, with lots of shouting and frustrated people and a scuffle, we later found out there were family members desperate to hurry things along in the hope that people could still be saved.

It’s very hard to explain or describe what you see in that moment of time, the most random of things that I guess you wouldn’t expect or think about but weirdly you should because it is someone’s home just not as it should be. One of the first things that resonated as the building being part of a family home was the grand piano that lay smashed in pieces, the chair having all four legs displaced and the piano book with what looked like a child’s writing on the pages, this in itself was very emotional for some of those in the line-up, one of whom folded this particular sheet up and placed it in his pocket. After the piano and a little further into the dig, a box of Christmas decorations had spilled its contents and were trickling down a sloped area, beautiful little trinkets that you know had just been used only a few weeks previously and had carefully been stored ready for Christmas 2023, decorations that would never be used or seen again and a family no longer alive to appreciate them. A full bottle of Jagermeister was completely untouched, remnants of broken crockery and homeware gave away the signs of a kitchen room, the tiniest little pink cup and a while later the matching pink saucer, both completely whole without a chink on them. Each little area we worked on represented part of each home, and it became obvious with the trinkets that you found, perfumes, aftershaves, moisturisers, toilet rolls and towels as to which room you were working in.

Many of the men on site would not pass me any heavy materials and I asked why they were not including me in some of the big pieces of rubble being passed, was it because they thought I was weak, the teams laughed and explained they were gentleman and I was a woman so they were being considerate, I asked that I be treated equally and I was there to help. They were shocked that a female was prepared to be on the building working as hard as the men and that the Scottish and English people had come over to help. They were very kind to me on every break and spoke for me to those who did not realise I was female because of the language barrier. There were only a couple of women on site and they generally guiding the teams but not digging. After a few hours on the first evening on top of the building the search teams came across a mattress, at this point, everything slowed down there was lots of shouting, I assume for blankets, body bags, and an ambulance as I came to realise was mattress was usually the sign that we were more than likely to find someone, sadly not alive. The first person was a lady, her foot ap