A city that moved into tents
More than 9 million people in Türkiye are still severely affected by the devastation of the earthquake in early February. In the past weeks, our colleagues have spoken to countless survivors, conducted surveys and begun to provide life-saving relief to those in need – in accordance with Hungarian Interchurch Aid’s motto: food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless and chance to start life anew. At a distribution in the city of Adiyaman we caught up with earthquake survivor Fatme and her family of seven – it is through their story that the true magnitude of the disaster can be truly understood.
Even though Adiyaman lies almost 100 kilometres to the east of the epicentre of the 6 February earthquake, the city has a post-apocalyptic look upon entering. A month after the disaster, the streets are still lined with damaged and destroyed houses – even those buildings that still look intact were mostly deemed uninhabitable by authorities. Turning off the main road entering the city, the devastation becomes even more severe, with empty torsos of houses grimly watching over the tent cities put up in every larger open area. It is here that life is able to continue, in stark contrast to the ominous silence of the houses surrounding the tents.
Aid workers of Hungarian Interchurch Aid and its local partner, Support to Life walk up and down the narrow alleys between the tents, knocking on the entrances and handing out hygiene kits for the families living in the camp. In total, 180 hygiene kits were distributed by HIA, which will provide 800 people with sanitary products for a whole month. Life – as it once was – came to grinding halt as a result of the catastrophe, there is barely any work to provide income for those who have lost their homes. This of course results in total dependence on humanitarian aid, a burden which is carried by local and international charities and Türkiye’s disaster response agency, AFAD. Even drinking water has to be brought from 50 kilometres, the water here is assumed to be contaminated.
During the distribution we are able to talk to one of the families. “Look! This is were we have been living for the past weeks. All the seven of us” – says Fatme as she invites us to inspect the meticulously clean tent. She does not stop talking, we barely have to ask her – it seems to be a therapeutic experience for her to speak about the pain she and her family are going through.
“That day, before dawn, my autistic son Gazi saved our lives. He woke up a couple of minutes before the earthquake hit, and dragged us outside. Then it happened, and we saw how the second floor of the house just crashed into the first. It really is a miracle that we are all alive”.
She then goes on to show a picture of herself from before the earthquake. “This is what I looked like a month ago.” The smiling eyes are the same, but her dark brown hair now hides grey strands under her headscarf.
Fatme gesticulates emotionally, holding Gazi’s hand the whole time. “We spent the first few days in a makeshift tent made out of canvas, not daring to go inside the part of the house still intact.” Fatme’s close family was lucky, unlike the people in the house next door. She points to a large pile of rubble once home to several families. “Ten people used to live here, including our relatives. Only one survived, but they needed to amputate her leg. We don’t know much about her, she is in a hospital far away, in Istanbul” says Fatme with tears in her eyes. Too many people remained trapped under the rubble, because it was impossible to rescue them by manual labour.
“We heard them crying for help for days, but when the rescue teams arrived, it was too late for most of them.”
We are being noticed by other locals, and they join in on the conversation, too. Here, everyone knows everyone. The trauma they’ve lived through is written all over their faces. A middle-aged man with grey hair comes up to us, and tells us of a seven-year-old girl from his house who was successfully saved from under the rubble. “The little girl was completely dehydrated. She said her mother kept her alive, giving her moisture from her own mouth.” Her mother did not live to see their rescue – she is one of nearly 50 thousand victims registered so far in Türkiye.
Those who have not left to live with relatives or friends in other parts of the country are waiting for a miraculous turn of fate in similar encampments in the whole region. Waiting, that’s the only thing happening to these people – and this helpless inaction also reinforces people’s understandably negative state of mind. Hüseyin, Fatme’s husband, still in shock from the disaster confesses in tears that he does not expect much from the future. “Adiyaman is over, life is over here, this is the end. We all used to live here, side by side. But many of our relatives died. There’s no point in going on like this.” His wife does not share his opinion, for their children they must go on she says
“We’ll stay in the tents for 10 more years if we have to. But it’s inhumane. Look, it’s really hard with Gazi, he can’t get used to this new environment. If we could at least continue life in a container, that would help a lot.”
Without assistance, the future of Fatme and millions of people affected by the earthquake in Türkiye and Syria looks bleak. For them to not lose hope in a better, brighter future, Hungarian Interchurch Aid is working closely with its partner organisations in both countries for over a month now. Humanitarian aid in forms of durable food, hygiene products and other non-food items essential for a life spent in tents are still very important, as there is simply no other way to guarantee the daily needs of the people who’ve lost their homes. While with physical scars may heal with time, Hüseyin and his family also needs the help of mental health professionals to treat their traumas.
It seems clear, that earthquake survivors can only live so long in these makeshift encampments lacking all kinds of facilities – for example, in Fatme’s camp there is only one sanitary container for close to 500 people. This is exactly why Hungarian Interchurch Aid will be providing sanitary containers for the survivors living in camps, and plans for a long-term presence in Türkiye – with reconstruction, WASH and housing as the cornerstones of its aid programme.
Meeting all these needs is unthinkable without a broad international coalition of helping agencies and aid organisations. Hungarian Interchurch Aid started its domestic fundraising campaign to support its humanitarian efforts in the region hit by the catastrophe, and calls all of its partners in the ACT Alliance and beyond to join in giving a helping hand for those who have lost everything in the matter of minutes on February 6.