Diyarbakir, Turkey – Volunteers in a three-story office building in Diyarbakir sit amid a haze of cigarette smoke, sipping cups of black tea as they plan the logistics of delivering aid to earthquake victims in Turkey.
Dozens of aid workers, working out of offices on loan from the city’s Chamber of Commerce, are coordinating shipments of supplies to the millions of people affected by the disaster last week.
They are just a small cog in the machine of many relief operations set up by ordinary citizens across Turkey.
“Our motivation comes from wanting to support our people and that’s what we work for,” said Evin Seker, a 30-year-old sociologist who normally works for a law firm in Diyarbakir, a southeastern city of two million. the province of the same name and the largest Kurdish-majority city in Turkey.
“I used to work as a volunteer for an NGO that helps children, and when the earthquake happened, we all came together to help people who had lost everything.”
Seker and her fellow volunteers are working around the clock to organize aid ranging from food and shelter to toiletries and clothing. They also sent rescuers and medics to the disaster zone.
Their initial focus was on Diyarbakir itself, which is the easternmost of the 10 provinces hit by the February 6 earthquake, but they have now shifted to other provinces such as Kahramanmaras, Adiyaman and Hatay, where the death toll and level of destruction is far greater.
“Only a few buildings collapsed in Diyarbakir, but there was still a great loss of life,” said Sirac Celik, a union official who helps at the relief center.
About 350 people died in Diyarbakir, according to the Diyarbakir City Protection and Solidarity Platform. Search and rescue efforts continued Monday at three locations where 55 people are believed to be trapped under the rubble.
“We have organized hundreds of places for people to stay around the city and are taking care of them, as well as organizing trucks that transport everything needed to other provinces,” said Celik.
On the other side of town, a take-out kebab restaurant in the Yenisehir neighborhood has been turned into a makeshift aid distribution center.
The owner of Kebab Stop, Sinan Guneri, was shaken from his bed by the first earthquake. He soon gathered his staff to start handing out free meals around town to rescue teams and survivors.
His work has been put on hold as Guneri, along with family, friends and other local businesses, loads aid convoys on the street.
“We’re not doing this for the money,” he said. “We’re just trying to help people. People and other entrepreneurs bring everything they need, and we prepare trucks to send them to the affected areas. People even bring items from their homes to send.
“We go to villages and other places that are difficult to reach. It is our duty to help people as much as we can.”
Guneri and his group of volunteers coordinate their efforts with other ad hoc groups to help citizens across the country via Twitter and WhatsApp.
“The biggest problem is coordination,” he said. “Right now my partner is with the trucks and I’m talking to other groups to find the places that need help the most.”
Yilmaz Tekin, a 32-year-old volunteer loading an aid truck at another hastily set-up distribution center in Diyarbakir, said his parents told him how ordinary citizens volunteered to provide aid after the 1999 Marmara earthquake that struck east of Istanbul , killing an estimated 18,000 people.
“We’re all here because we feel a real need to do something to help people,” he said.
“This earthquake is unlike anything we’ve seen before, but my parents knew people who died in the Marmara earthquake and they told me that the state didn’t do anything in the early days, so people had to help each other.”
From the small building that houses the teachers’ association offices in Diyarbakir’s Kayapinar district, Tekin and scores of others form a human chain to carry relief supplies from hand to hand to a truck too big to fit on the narrow road.
“We were here within three hours of the earthquake,” he said. “Even though Diyarbakir is a big city, sometimes it feels smaller because everyone looks out for each other. We apply that spirit to the work we do now.”
Not only are trucks transporting supplies from the whitewashed two-story building, but private cars, trunks and back seats full of blankets, clothes, sugar, tea and other necessities.
Kurdish language professor Fesih Zirek oversees the operation from a small office in the back of the building. A steady stream of people come and go, and the hallway outside is jammed with volunteers lugging boxes of supplies.
“Of course, it’s great to see so many people feeling the need to help,” Zirek said. “But tragedy is always close to the surface for everyone. We hope these days will pass quickly.”