A year after deadly earthquake, survivors in Turkey, Syria search for answers, seek help

(OSV News) — Commemorating the first anniversary of the “Disaster of the Century” brought unrest and anger in Turkey, where over 50,000 people died in a deadly earthquake that hit the country on Feb. 6, 2023. In neighboring Syria, 6,000 people died.

In Antakya, capital of the Turkish province of Hatay, the worst affected of the 11 southern provinces hit by the magnitude 7.8 disaster, crowds jostled with police, calling on the city’s mayor, Lutfu Savas, to resign and booing Health Minister Fahrettin Koca, Al Jazeera reported.

It was “80 seconds of horror,” said Rama Daaboul, who is from Syria and works at the Hope Center, which cooperates with Caritas Poland. “The earthquake lasted 1 minute and 20 seconds. But then it felt like a lifetime,” she recalled.

“The ground beneath our feet was like a swing,” added Rita Melkon, a beneficiary of a program run by Caritas Poland that helps families in Syria.

The earthquake was the biggest disaster in nearly 100 years in the region, and for Syria it was another blow to a country was already devastated by the civil war that had begun in 2011 and was largely over by early 2023. Rebuilding of some parts of the country had only just begun when the earthquake struck and everything lay in ruins again, survivors lamented.

The Polish branch of Caritas, part of the Caritas Internationalis charitable arm of the Catholic Church, dedicated $4.7 million for the victims of the earthquake in Syria and Turkey.

“The first thing I did was to take my 2-year-old daughter. And praying that God would help us,” Daaboul recalled.

“Then the aftershocks began, even stronger than the first (tremble). … Through the roar of the falling stones, the screams of my daughter reached us. When we got outside, the sight was horrifying,” Melkon remembered. “People were standing crowded in the street, it was raining in icy temperatures, small children were crying,” she said, describing the scene. “The ground beneath our feet was like a swing.”

Sleeping mattresses and food packages from Caritas Poland were part of the first relief supplies that reached earthquake-hit Syria, where aid was not allowed due to international sanctions on the Syrian regime.

According to the United Nations, 15.3 million people in Syria are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. More than half of the population is facing hunger, a figure that has increased by more than 50% in the last three years. One reason for that is the 2023 earthquake.

“Syria is slowly rebuilding, but it will still take years. Hyperinflation is rampant in the country, salaries are stagnant, the cost of living is rising, and the local currency is losing its purchasing power,” said Dominik Derlicki, head of mission of Caritas Poland in Syria and Lebanon.

“The earthquake brought families back to the reality they were trying to cope with,” added Daaboul of the Hope Center.

“All of our school buildings were destroyed as a result of the war. The kindergarten section was renovated and Caritas Poland contributed to this,” said Arpi Ohanian, headmistress of Al Kilikia School in Aleppo, which was renovated by Caritas Poland prior to the earthquake.

“Unfortunately, the February 6 earthquake destroyed the school again and we had to start from scratch,” Ohanian lamented.

One year after the earthquake, what is most urgently needed from a material aspect is the repairing of buildings, but Daaboul said people’s traumas are much more difficult to heal.

“We need psychological help, both for children and adults, because unfortunately we cannot say that we have overcome the shock of the earthquake,” she said.

The Caritas network is reaching out with financial and psychological assistance to families and victims of trauma. Repairs of homes and schools damaged in the earthquake and earlier by warfare will continue throughout 2024 and beyond.

“Our task, as a humanitarian organization, is to help the victims of wars and disasters, especially in countries already afflicted by fate,” said Father Marcin Izycki, director of Caritas Poland.

“I trust that thanks to the open-heartedness of the donors who so generously support the … programs of Caritas Poland, we can help people restore decent living conditions. For their sensitivity to the needs of others, I thank them wholeheartedly,” he added.

In neighboring Turkey, even though the country was not additionally damaged by war, relief efforts are still too little, people from the region struck by the earthquake said on the tragic anniversary.

In Kahramanmaras, near the epicenter, there is slow progress in the work to rebuild the city and re-house thousands who remain in tents and prefabricated containers.

During commemoration services, locals said that because of authorities’ delayed response to the disaster, many of their loved ones were left to die, trapped for days under the rubble in the freezing cold.

On Feb. 6, right after 4 a.m., the hour when the earthquake struck, people chanted “Can anyone hear me?” — echoing the voices of those who lost their lives while waiting for help.

The crowd declared: “We won’t forget, we won’t forgive,” while charity worker Daaboul in Syria added: “The scar of February 6 will never heal.”

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