Antakya, Turkey – “Canlı! Live!” was the most hopeful cry heard on the streets of Antakya since a magnitude 7.8 earthquake sent waves of death and destruction across 10 provinces in southern Turkey as well as parts of Syria a week ago.
The cries of search and rescue teams announcing that they have found someone “alive” send people running from all directions to focus their attention on what seems like a miracle at this point in the disaster response.
Late Saturday, 18-year-old Fadel from Deir Az Zor, Syria, thought he heard his uncle Ahmed still crying for help from beneath the rubble of the Antakya apartment building where he lived on the eighth floor. Fadel said Ahmed called out that he was trapped under the stairs.
The volunteers alerted search and rescue teams, including the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Agency, the Istanbul Fire Brigade and volunteer miners and construction workers.
Unfortunately, the team of about 100 people has not yet found Fadel’s uncle. One of them said that it could be “psychological”, that people believe they hear the voices of their loved ones because they want to, and that after five days under the rubble, there is little or no chance that people will be found alive.
Terrible disappointment, then hope
But by 7am (0400 GMT) on Sunday morning, all efforts were focused on trying to free the 16-year-old girl from the basement of a collapsed building next door. Only three of the five floors of the building could be seen, and the bottom two were completely destroyed.
Miners, construction workers and the fire brigade spent hours digging and cutting through the monstrous chunks of cement and twisted rebar to finally discover the girl, a Syrian refugee named Reem, who had somehow survived as she lay trapped next to her sister, who had died.
Between working to cut around Reem and dislodge the debris from the cavity, the medics occasionally gave her water through a straw, each time coming out to cheer and declare how much she had drunk.
It was her first sip of liquid in over six days.
At some point in the day, the earth began to shake and bounce, and another cry was heard. “An earthquake is coming!” a rescuer shouted, announcing the aftershock, one of hundreds since the first quake on February 6.
Some of us looked up to the top of a neighboring apartment building where a huge piece of roof with a satellite dish still attached was balancing precariously on the corner. We all hoped it wouldn’t fall and crush us.
One of the volunteers on the spot pointed out that there was a body right under our feet, which they had found using a machine that checks for heat, sound and vibration, but since that person had died, the priority was currently on the girl who was still alive.
The people standing there suggested different numbers of how many other people were in the room with Ree – the highest estimate was four people, one of them being her sister who was lying next to her.
At 1pm (1000 GMT), it was predicted that it would take another hour to get the teenager out. At one point, the army commander shouted, “She’s coming out!” and began deploying the team into the hallway to carry Reem’s stretcher to the ambulance.
This happened twice more as the day approached evening. “Now she’s coming!” and the medics once again prepared a neck brace and an emergency blanket to wrap around her and stood ready for action.
Each time there seemed to be a new problem with the cement trapping her foot, crushing it and pinning it in the rubble.
To lift the cement, the team decided to lift it with a crane and then cut wooden blocks with a chainsaw to support the cement and create a corridor for its extraction.
It was indeed a dangerous job undertaken by a mostly volunteer team of miners, considering that the entire building could fall on them at any moment.
While the workers waited, exhausted from days without sleep, simple packets of food and juice were delivered from time to time, but not everyone had an appetite for food no matter how long they worked without a break.
One miner who traveled from Ankara to volunteer told me that he only ate to be “strong and survive to keep working”.
A 28-year-old firefighter from Istanbul brought me a bottle of water and a packet of biscuits after he found out that I hadn’t eaten all day and was out of water.
He told me he was one of the 600 people who were brought to Adana immediately after the earthquake and put on a bus straight to Antakya to help with the rescue. For the first two days they slept in the open – until the tents were sent from Istanbul – and worked with hardly any tools or machinery.
Troubled families, rising tensions
As darkness fell, the neon lights went out as work continued to free Reem’s leg. It became so cold that some firefighters went to sit by the open fire to warm themselves and drink tea. Nevertheless, Reem survived in these conditions, which is now a total of seven nights.
Around 9 p.m., the army called in seven police officers due to tensions with extended family standing around the rescue operation, anxious to pull out those still buried under the rubble.
I was told that Antakya is no longer a safe place to be at night. Violence often breaks out on the streets in pitch darkness. Opportunists started stealing valuables. There is no shelter except sleeping in an unsecured tent or car, and going to the toilet as a woman is an additional risk in itself.
In the end, I reluctantly had to leave the rescue site after the police were deployed, given that I didn’t have my own car to sleep in and the only way to get to Adana late at night was by bus.
Sad and disappointed to be forced to leave without seeing the rescued Reem, I passed my number to the fireman and one of the soldiers, knowing they would capture the moment. Workers were ready with phones multiple times throughout the afternoon whenever they thought they would get her out.
Walking through the darkness accompanied by a group of volunteers from Samsun, who had traveled all the way from the Black Sea coast, we tried not to trip over the cracks that the earthquakes had opened on the road.
Only makeshift lights shone on the blocks where apartment buildings once stood, and now machines were scraping the rubble from what were once people’s homes. The dust in the air scratched the lungs, and the smoke from all the burning fires blurred our vision.
Most of Antakya is now a ghost town after most of its surviving residents fled to other towns or farms they have nearby. Those still waiting for missing loved ones can be seen sitting in front of destroyed houses with only a fire to keep them warm. I saw soldiers earlier that day collecting scrap wood from destroyed buildings.
Some of the colorful apartment buildings with balconies where families gathered on warm days are still standing, but they are leaning, broken and cracked with laundry still hanging on clotheslines, living rooms and bedrooms facing the street.
When I turned the corner, I heard again the shouts of “Canlı! Live!” and the screech of an ambulance pulling up.
Rushing to the collapsed apartment building where the excavator was working, the mother, father and sister stood at the edge of the rubble, their faces filled with anguish and hope, wondering if it was really true that their daughter and sister could be alive.
The boy made his way back towards his family from the hole dug in the rubble and almost slipped off the shiny metal edge of the covered and crushed car.
“Tell me! Tell me!” – shouted the mother frantically, begging the boy to tell her if her daughter was alive. He didn’t answer. As the mother grew more desperate, a group of emergency services made their way to the edge of the rubble carrying a body bag, the only confirmation needed that her daughter had not made it out alive.
With wails and screams, the soldiers took the mother and daughter away from sight.
One of the people from Samsun told me to keep going. “We have to go,” I continued walking.
When I was on the bus, I got a text that Reem had survived, 30 minutes after I left and 162 hours after he was captured.