Turkey Disaster


As a shallow, inland earthquake of a huge magnitude flattened a vast belt straddling the border between Turkey and Syria killing thousands of people instantly, a number of Kashmiri students have joined relief and rescue teams. Khalid Bashir Gura talked to a few of them to report the state and status of a major tragedy

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An aerial view of Hatay (Turkey) after the devastating twin earthquakes flattened the region. Image: Ibrahim Haskoloğlu

On February 5, Fazilah, a Kashmiri student went to Kahramanmaras, a Turkey city for a day trip. As it was snowing in Gaziantep, the message from the university group doubled the joy of tired Fazilah and her friends. “The educational institutions will be closed on Monday,” the varsity message read. Sensing an opportunity to rest and wake up late, joyful Fazilah planned to sleep late the next day without dinner.

On February 6, morning a 7.8-magnitude earthquake and a subsequent 7.5-magnitude tremor hit the area seriously impacting contiguous territories in Turkey and Syria. The shallow earthquake said to be the major inland earthquake of the world in recent years killed more than 35000 people and reduced nearly 4000 buildings to rubble as the World Health Organisation (WHO) fears the toll can go unimaginably up. As rescuers scour to find survivors amidst the rubble of flattened buildings, Kashmiri students in Turkey said not many tourists and students were in the region where most people were sleeping.

Mourning Monday

“Tired, I went to bed but little did I know what was in store after a few hours. At around 4:15 am, the building started shaking so hard and everything rattled and fell that it woke us up and we were frightened,” Fazilah said. Luckily, the horrific shaking sounds woke us up, she said. “My roommate was in complete shock and started shouting, “ye kyahorhahai, ye rukkyunahirha, hum mar jayenge.” Having an experience of earthquakes back home, I hugged her to calm her down.” Instinctively, they hid under the bed but the relentless shaking scared them enough and they started running away, leaving everything in the room.

While running Fazilah’s roommate fell and broke her chin. “Coming out of the room looked like a long journey. At one point, I believed we will not make it and will get buried in the building,” she said. “The wall plaster was falling off and in the din of shrieks and cries, we somehow managed to move out.” It was too cold and snowing and they had no protection against it.

Shivering and watching the destruction around, Fazilah watch another major earthquake that widened the cracks in buildings. As it thawed, they quickly ran into the room and retrieved their shoes, jackets and cell phones.

“In frigid cold air students, and families huddled and left for a safer place called Olipmichavuz (Olympic pool). Panicked people had to leave the apartments and take refuge at safer locations. Later, authorities were providing food and necessary items but it wasn’t enough for all the people there,” she said, insisting though the place was warm, it lacked space and was jam-packed.

As the news broke back home, there was a barrage of distressed calls and messages.

Much later, as they walked to their dormitory, they felt deserted streets, silent roads and quiet apartments as if life ceased to exist. Every time the people felt safe in a building, the fierce aftershocks ensured they ran out.

“I left the devastated city and now I am in Ankara, with Kashmiri students studying here,” Fazilah said, insisting the memories of miraculous survival and aftershocks have triggered trauma and she has a huge sleep deficit.

Volunteers and Response

Unlike, Fazilah, Zeenish, a Kashmiri student in Film and TV at Bahcesehir University was deep in sleep when the earthquake struck. She lives in Istanbul, more than 1000 km away from the epicentre. She did not feel tremors either. After the details of the devastation emerged, she joined the three Kashmiri students to volunteer for work.

Teams from around the world dispatched rescue workers, equipment and aid to deal with the disaster. So far 97 countries have offered assistance as the earthquake affected more than 13 million people across 10 Turkish provinces. Three different teams from India are part of the rescue efforts in Turkey. These include a 101-member NDRF team and an army medical corps detachment. This is in addition to a huge relief that has flown to Syria and Turkey. Turkey has arranged thousands of translators to bridge the communication gap between the rescue teams and the local people.

An aerial view of the devastation by the February 2023 earthquake in Hatay, Turkey.

“We started volunteering on the second day after the earthquake after our university pages posted advertisements to volunteer or contribute relief material for the victims,” said Zeenish. Outside the campus, various e-commerce sites are offering relief delivery free.

According to her, they saw the advertisement and went with whatever relief material we could offer and help in packing and dispatching. “We collect the relief material, pack it in boxes and then load them in trucks to deliver it to the affected site. We know about the authentic sites here and therefore choose to contribute carefully,” she said.

The tragedy has united the Turkish people. “Food is being cooked by volunteers overnight even in Istanbul, which is more than a thousand km from that place, and then taken to the Gaziantep and nearby areas. People are donating blood, food, clothes, blankets, and essential supplies. Many of the rich property owners provided living facilities for the people who are homeless after the quake.”

Relief and Rescue

To address connectivity, social media is being used by companies and relief workers in fundraising, relief gathering and relief delivery.

There are two types of responses right now according to Wahid Bashir, a Kashmiri scholar in Istanbul. Firstly, according to him, the government institutions like AFAD, a disaster management system in the home ministry, are leading all the rescue, relief and rehabilitation activities. There are other government institutions and organisations as well.

“There are non-governmental or semi-governmental groups that are into rescue, relief and rehabilitation activities. But all these institutions are doing activities in the areas they have a speciality in. Some are doing only rescue, some only relief and some may start rehabilitating the people as well,” he said. He said Turks as a nation are so much a responsible society that they are responding to this disaster collectively. “They try to do things in collaboration with government agencies in a controlled manner and not in haphazard ways.”

Kamran Ashraf Bhat, another Kashmiri, a Media and Cinema researcher at Bahcesehir University, has volunteered for rescue and relief operations. A resident of Kupwara, he had received panic calls and messages when he was sleeping. Bhat was a class seven student when on October 8, 2005, an earthquake measuring 7.6 rattled Kashmir. However, at home, his distressed parents, and friends heaved a sigh of relief when he said: ‘hello’ on phone.

“According to him, there are not many Kashmiris in the devastated area as there are no major educational institutions and only two Kashmiris were located and they are safe. The area is far off from the capital. However, the gloom is all over Turkey,” Bhat said, insisting there are systems in vogue that encourage people to contribute their bit without physical involvement. “Each individual, the organisation has been given a specific area to tackle as the priority is to save lives and reduce the death toll by pulling people out of the rubble. Many NGOs have also chipped in,” he said.

Modern Aids

Turkish engineers have developed technologies to aid earthquake victims. Apps like Debris Listening App, serve to hear the voices of those under the debris without the need for the internet. The system can record frequencies between 350 – 5000 Hz. There are other Apps like Collective Platform for Earthquake Victims, Disaster Information, Map for Safe Zones, Earthquake Help, Earthquake Call (A Twitter stream application for people under the debris.), Be My Guest (People not in the earthquake zone can give victims the run of their homes.).

There are set psychological intervention formats too. Off late, the Turkish government is being criticised for its failure in curbing disinformation and ensuring smooth rescue and relief operations.

Other than the AFAD, Yaqeen Sikander, a Kashmiri psychotherapist and clinical psychologist based in Istanbul said there are many organizations on the ground like IHH and India operation Dost.

The 1999 Marmara earthquake, however, marked a turning point in the area of disaster management and coordination. This devastating disaster clearly demonstrated the need to reform disaster management and compelled the country to establish a single government institution to single-handedly coordinate and exercise legal authority in cases of disaster and emergencies.

Off late, a clinical psychologist is coordinating a project in which there will be specific instructions for adults, children, psychologists and first responders who are on the ground.  “It includes tips to reduce anxiety, and phone numbers one can call. It will be a one-pager psychological first aid.”

Besides providing safety, food and shelter we have to ensure psychosocial education. Besides, there will be a psychological assessment to assess trauma and this involves listening to them mostly,” Sikander, who is a PhD candidate at IbnHaldun University, said. He is doing this project for his University as the University’s first group has left for fieldwork.

“There are children who need explanation and people whose family members died. How do you send this message to them? Generally, a psychologist is sent to deliver this news, while following the protocol,” he said.

(Some figures in the report were changed)


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