Gaziantep, Turkey – After a series of earthquakes and aftershocks in Turkey and Syria, many tried to flee the devastated city of Gaziantep, located about 33 km (20 miles) from the epicenter.
With the airport and many roads outside the city blocked, those unable to leave on Tuesday took refuge in shopping malls, stadiums, mosques and community centers.
“When I thought of leaving the city, it was already too late,” 25-year-old Yunus Koser told Al Jazeera. Koser, who had taken refuge in Sih Fetullah Square with his mother and brother, was working the night shift in the Ibrahimli district – one of the worst-hit areas in the city – when the first tremor struck early Monday.
He said he immediately ran home through the chaos in the streets, only to find the walls of his house damaged. When the second earthquake struck, Koser feared that his home was no longer safe.
“So we preferred to camp in the open, with dozens of other families,” he said.
“Sitting next to each other, around the fire, makes the situation a little more bearable, more humane.”
A day after earthquakes struck southeastern Turkey and northwestern Syria, killing thousands, rescue operations are underway.
The death toll topped 7,000 late Tuesday and is expected to continue to rise. Many of those in need are still isolated due to cold temperatures and blocked roads, preventing rescue teams from reaching the affected areas.
‘As far as possible’
Mariia Honcharuk, 24, a Ukrainian refugee living in Gaziantep, said she is still trying to leave the city.
“We are trying to go as far as possible until the situation calms down,” she said.
On Monday, Honcharuk quickly packed a few clothes into a bag and hopped on the first bus to Antalya, but the bus station was full of people trying to escape the city.
When she finally managed to get a ticket, she got stuck on the road to Adana. “We had to take another road because the main one was blocked, so it took much longer than usual,” Honcharuk said.
“Then we just waited in the traffic jam all night and morning in Nurdagi [the epicentre of the earthquake]and we had to find an alternative route south.”
Yahaya Hassan Labaran, a Nigerian PhD student in civil engineering at Gaziantep University, said foreign students living alone are panicking about the disaster.
“When the earthquake happened, they told us to leave the dormitory immediately, not knowing if we would come back,” Labaran said, adding that being stuck in a temporary shelter with hundreds of other people, with limited food and water, was emotionally draining.
“I even left my passport in the building. I was trying to remember, because I want to get to my homeland, but the security won’t let me in. I just want to go home, I have never seen a disaster like this.”
Experts feared Monday’s tremors could worsen the loss of cultural heritage in the region – the Turkish government said more than 5,600 buildings in Turkey had been destroyed. UNESCO warned on Tuesday that several world heritage sites, identified by the United Nations agency for their cultural, historical, scientific and other forms of significance, may have been damaged.
After the first earthquake, Emad al-Mustafa jumped into his car with his wife and four children. Although his house, located near Šankovo Park, was not damaged in the earthquake, he no longer believed it was safe to be there.
“When we realized there was no water, no electricity, no security in our building, we decided to leave,” al-Mustafa said by phone while traveling to Eskisehir, a city far from the damaged areas. “But I wish I hadn’t taken that car trip. What we saw on the way was only ruins and complete devastation, like an apocalypse movie.”