Turkey Syria Earthquake: Elbistan Relief Efforts

/ By Josh

As it’s been difficult to keep people up to date regarding our ever-evolving situation, I thought this may be the best way to get all of you who have been supporting or following our aid efforts up to date. Thank you all for your thoughts, prayers, and financial support.

In the early morning of Feb 6th, a 7.8 earthquake struck southern Turkey reducing many buildings to rubble before the people sleeping inside even had a chance to understand what was happening. Nine hours later another 7.7 earthquake rocked the area bringing further devastation and widening the scope of the affected area. Millions were affected. Over the following week there were over 2,000 aftershocks and lesser quakes that continued to bring further damage to broken buildings.

One of the families I sat with told me about hearing this song on the radio. It’s a lament for Turkey and the suffering caused by the earthquake.

The initial earthquake woke us up in distant Antalya, and over the following hours of frantic messaging, a picture was beginning to emerge of just how serious the disaster was. In the first 48 hours after the quake, it was becoming clear that the official emergency response was utterly overwhelmed. While international aid was coming it was rumoured that it was being caught up at customs.

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To make matters worse winter had arrived late this year, and up until a week before the earthquake many were talking about a coming drought due to the complete lack of snow. By February 6th winter had finally arrived bringing temperatures below freezing and heavy snow to many parts of the region affected by the quake.

Elbistan Earthquake Aid

Elbistan Earthquake Aid
People look on as an excavator picks its way into the ruin of an apartment block.

A couple days after the earthquake I heard news about a need for translators and jumped on board. For reasons I still don’t fully understand this evolved into arranging a minibus full of supplies to bring to the city of Elbistan. The plan was to unload the supplies and then load up with evacuees. In a flurry we bought food, diapers, cooking equipment, and whatever else we thought could be useful.

Elbistan was one of the last major centers to receive aid. A city of 140,000 (not including some of the other neighbouring townships), Elbistan was not accessible due to access being cut off from the north thanks to snow. Access from the south was questionable and anyone hoping to arrive from that way would have to pass through the other badly affected areas first. Not only was Elbistan cut off, but it was also the coldest city in the affected region with temperatures of -20 Celsius at night and a high of -5 during the day. With no electricity and and homes unsafe people were were at risk of dying of exposure.

Elbistan Earthquake Aid
The cold snow covered mountains loom over the town of Göksun, one of the other centers we worked to evacuate.

During our long drive from Antalya to Elbistan I overheard our drivers talking together about other drivers with minibuses that would like to help but couldn’t due to lake of money for fuel. Suddenly we had a plan and began messaging furiously to raise as much money as we could to mobilize these drivers and vehicles. The idea was to load up the vans with supplies and bring them to Elbistan where we would distribute them according to need. The busses would then fill up with evacuees and bring them to Alanya where there were hotels opened for those displaced.

We didn’t arrive in Elbistan till 4 AM. It was -20 and people were huddled in front of bonfires to stay warm. There were tent cities already set up by the emergency services which had arrived sometime earlier that same day though the extreme cold made the tents useless until something could be done to heat them.

Elbistan Earthquake Aid
Picking through piles of donated clothes in the dark.

We unloaded our supplies by the light of our headlamps then made our way to the Cemevi, the social and religious center of Turkish Shia Muslims, to try and get an idea of what supplies we should be sending on the next bus. Inside the Cemevi we found a room with about 150-200 elderly tightly packed onto couches with a single giant wood stove to keep the space warm. While staying inside the building was a risk, the cold was the more immediate danger.

By the time we had gotten the information we needed it was after 6 am so we attempted to sleep for an hour in a house that was undamaged before getting up to begin distributing food and supplies.

Elbistan Earthquake Update
A crowd of volunteers, professional search and rescue workers, and locals waiting for news of loved ones watches the slow work of digging into the heart of the concrete ruin.

In the light we saw some of the incredible challenges of aid in Elbistan. Not only were tents empty due to cold but truck loads of bottled water that had been left on the side of the road were frozen solid and boxes of clothes were strewn about, covered in frost and frozen to the ground. Waiting for the return of our busses we walked around the city meeting people and asking what their needs were. While we were able to meet real needs (bringing them food, blankets, cooking supplies etc.) there was no escaping the reality that anything we did was nothing more than mitigating the effects of a disaster.

Elbistan Earthquake Aid
One of many piles of waters bottles, all frozen solid in the cold temperatures.

Elbistan Earthquake Aid

Our soup kitchen was set up in one of Elbistan’s tent cities, looking directly across at the morgue where people continuously streamed in and out; some looking for loved ones, others there to make ready for a hasty funeral before looking for a way out of Elbistan. By this time we were beginning to see on every list of wanted supplies the need for sheets to be used as burial shrouds as the official death toll continued to rise.

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While we were standing in front of a ruined building a car pulled up and a family we had met earlier that day got out. We were standing in front of their home. There was a wedding photo hanging crookedly on the cracked wall, and inside we could see open cupboards where desperately needed blankets and mattresses were stored just out of reach. They told us about their neighbour and his son who went into the building to get supplies but were caught in the second quake. Both died.

Elbistan Earthquake Aid
A local family standing in front of the ruins of their home.
Elbistan Earthquake Aid
One of the families we were able to help. Their business was across the street. While the building was still partially standing, it had partly collapsed and was precariously leaning out over the road.

Heaviest of all was the look on the faces of some of the kids. There was one boy we met with his family huddled around a fire. His eyes were blank staring wide and his mouth hanging open. Over the hour or two I spent with the family on various occasions the expression on his face never changed. He was 13; old enough to fully understand what he had seen.

Elbistan Earthquake Aid

Elbistan Earthquake Aid
A local man standing in front of his shop. A gas line had exploded setting his shop full of paint and insulation on fire. Fire crews had come to extinguish it multiple times but it kept reigniting, filling the air with toxic smoke for days.

One day while we were picking up a load of coal from a distribution center that had been set up in the city we passed by an area where a large number of buildings had collapsed. Rescue workers had been digging here for a couple days already but this time all was utterly silent. We were told to cut the cars engine and wait. Apparently, after search and rescue crews had stopped digging through the building two guys had heard a voice while passing by. They immediately found a crew to come and investigate. The search and rescue crew did an inspection, found nothing, and left. The two young men were convinced they had heard a voice and managed to find a different team to come and look for survivors. Two women were found alive.

Elbistan Earthquake Aid
A crowd of volunteers, professional search and rescue workers, and locals waiting for news of loved ones watches the slow work of digging into the heart of the concrete ruin. Two women were found alive under the rubble nearly a week after the quake.

When our busses arrived, we brought them to the Cemevi where crowds seemed to congregate regularly. While we had hoped there would be some semblance of an orderly evacuation (I had seen a list of names and destinations at one point), reality turned out to be nothing more than chaos, shouting and desperation. With the help of some of the other volunteers and paramedics operating in the area we were able to find some of the high-priority people including a woman who had recently had a c-section, numerous elderly, and others with small children and send them to Alanya or other cities along that route.

While this effort was successful, we quickly found a shortcoming: how were we going to help those who needed to travel to other places? What if their need is urgent but the only place they can  go where there will be someone to care for them is somewhere else entirely?

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Early in the morning, when we should have been sleeping, one of our group came up with a new idea. What if we brought people to the nearest operating bus station and simply paid for their tickets to whichever city they needed?

Elbistan Earthquake Aid
A tent set up in town so that the family could be near their home.
Elbistan Earthquake Aid
One of the volunteers who came to do whatever was needed to help locals. While he came from Istanbul we also met other Turks who had flown from all over Europe to help as they could.

On the first day with our new system we hired two busses and went back to the Cemevi with them to load them up. Loading took more time than expected as the crowds of people waiting to leave were beginning to thin and many who were gathered there were not ready to leave. Many of those who were still there either had no where to go, animals to look after, or were waiting for news of loved ones lost in the rubble. Many of those who did come with us were those who had just held a funeral and finally felt free to leave.

Our two busses arrived at the Kayseri bus station separately and the passengers on the first bus got tickets without issue. An hour later, when the second bus arrived, there were no tickets left and all of our passengers would have to wait, some as long as three or four days. The sudden rush of people fleeing the region had overwhelmed the capacity of Turkey’s normally robust bus system and any news I could get regarding the airport was worse yet.

While we were able to find housing, many of these people were far out of their element. Some were illiterate, some only spoke Kurdish, some had never used the bus system on their own, and all had gone through various degrees of trauma just days before. The idea of staying in an unknown location was terrifying for them. We spent the rest of the night and some of the following morning settling them in a recently emptied student dorm.

The next day one of our team mates had a suggestion: let’s only pick up passengers that we have already purchased tickets for. When they contact us we can check to see if there are tickets available. We can even arrange the pickup based on the day they would travel.

Thanks to this little change the next few days of shuttling passengers and loading them onto busses went off without a hitch. Perhaps the only issue was that news of our offer to evacuate people (and our phone numbers with it) had spread so far that we were being overwhelmed with phone calls day and night. People had taken pictures of our posters and shared them on social media, and major organizations were sharing our information with those that came to them. Thankfully we had included an end date on the posters and the phone calls began to drop off by Feb 17th.

Elbistan Earthquake Aid
“Boş” or “Empty” written on the side of a collapsed building indicating that search and rescue workers had checked the building for signs of life.

After roughly a week away we headed back for home, catching up on news over the long drive. Social media was flooded with images of devastation and sadness. A man sitting in the ruins holding the hand of his daughter that stuck out from the ruins of a building. Another of a man weeping and covering himself in ashes. Streets filled with the noise of people crying out for help and loved ones.

There were pleas for help to and from every corner of the region; people looking for information regarding missing loved ones. In the midst of all this darkness and sorrow there were also glimmers of light. People were being rescued alive from the rubble even after 200 hours and aid was coming from all over the world. Even Israel and Greece,  countries that Turkey has had poor relations with for years, were sending aid. Trucks full of supplies crossed a bridge from Armenia, the first time any vehicle had driven across the border in 35 years.

Elbistan Earthquake Aid
Our view for the better part of many days as we oversaw the moving of survivors.

The need for evacuation seemed to have dwindled and so the project was ended. Currently we are looking at what medium-term needs are needed. There are thousands in need of medical care, thousands left without homes. Schools, hospitals, and workplaces are gone, and the future is full of uncertainty. At the moment we’re taking some time to reassess the needs and where we can best be of use.

Elbistan Earthquake Aid
A smile despite the pain and loss.

The fact that strangers from Canada, the United States, and around the world would send money to buy a family bus tickets moved some to tears and so on behalf of those who thanked us, I want to thank all who donated and were willing to help. The little help and love we were able to show has been deeply meaningful to many.


Note: As of publishing we are looking at supplying tents for use in some of the warmer areas, using donated funds to pay for medical procedures, and to buy/rent equipment (i.e. beds, wheelchairs, etc) for those left badly injured by the quake. Please contact us if you know of other initiatives and needs.