As foreign rescuers arrive, Turkish earthquake survivors scramble for aid

Photo for The Washington Post by Alice Martins
A member of an Algerian rescue team communicates with a Turkish team through interpreters as they work to retrieve a body from the earthquake rubble in Adiyaman, Turkey, on Feb. 8, 2023.

ADIYAMAN, Turkey – Algerian rescue workers were this city’s heroes for a few minutes Wednesday after they freed two children from a collapsed apartment building, on a broad boulevard lined with destruction, long past the time anyone expected good news.

But there were no relatives waiting to receive the children: a girl, maybe 7, wearing a white T-shirt, and a younger boy with close-cropped hair. It was possible that family members would find them later, at a hospital, but also that their parents or other relatives were still under the rubble. Instead, it was a stranger – a Turkish charity worker – who sobbed uncontrollably outside the tent where the children were recovering, as if they were his own.

The Algerians, along with rescue teams from Spain, Taiwan, Pakistan and elsewhere, were part of the patchwork relief effort that began to gather pace in Adiyaman and other ravaged parts of southern Turkey on Wednesday, including visits by volunteers bringing food from other cities. But the distribution of government supplies – after days of complaints by survivors desperate for aid – was at times scattershot and chaotic.

Turkey’s government has appealed for international help in the aftermath of Monday’s earthquakes, which have killed more than 12,000 people in Turkey and Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan toured Hatay province Wednesday, a focal point of the devastation, where he announced the death toll in the country had eclipsed 9,000 and vowed to rebuild cities and find shelter for residents who had been made homeless.

Anger here over the government response was still raw, though. Crowds gathered outside flattened dwellings, demanding to know why they were not being searched for survivors. And they confronted the provincial governor, chanting that Adiyaman had been “forsaken,” according to a video that circulated online.

Turkey’s health minister said Tuesday that at least 900 people had died in the city, home to 250,000 in the largely Kurdish southeast, but residents on Wednesday said the tally was likely to be much higher.

Throngs of people gathered around trucks that delivered large tents, part of a haphazard aid delivery effort that also included the distribution of water and some clothes. Scuffles broke out as the tents were thrown down from a truck near the city center.

Somehow, Pakize Icer secured one of the tents, which was much larger than she was. She could not seem to figure out how to get it into her car, and instead stood shivering, in a thin sweater, with the tent at her feet. She and her family were living between some buildings, she said, and then began to cry, saying her uncle was still missing. “His whole family is dead,” she said. “Will we see better days?”

Esref Tuncer, 60, who came hoping to find blankets, walked away with some thin-looking socks and two sweaters instead.

He and his family, who became homeless after the earthquakes, were living in a hall normally used for families receiving mourners after a death. As he surveyed the scenes around him, he seemed doubtful of the promise that life would return to normal anytime soon. “This will go on for two or three years,” he predicted.

But many were trying to help. Just outside the city center, Halil Gulmus, a 60-year-old truck driver who had transported an excavator to Adiyaman, offered a ride out of town to a Syrian family that had lost their home. But the road to the airport was closed, he said, apologizing for letting them down. “Do you need water?” he asked. But what they needed was a tent.

A group of volunteers from the city of Sanliurfa drove around in two vans, distributing honey, chocolate, biscuits, strawberry and banana milk, fruit and diapers. The volunteers, all from the same family, had been moved by videos of the destruction in Adiyaman, said Bekir Uludag, 33.

“We saw that people were devastated,” he said.

As residents despaired, the foreign rescuers got to work – they included a group of Tunisians, a team from Taiwan and 51 workers from Pakistan. “The situation is very bad,” said Mohammed Farhan Khalid, the leader of the Pakistani team, who compared the Turkish earthquakes to the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir that killed tens of thousands.

“We have seen this,” he said. “More rescue and relief is required.”

The Algerians arrived late Monday, and were “really good,” said Cihan Ozay, 33, whose own sister had just been pulled out alive from a crushed building by Turkish rescuers, whom he also praised.

“They have great equipment,” he said of the Algerians. “They take all the bodies out.”

The Algerian team numbered 86 people – 89, counting command staff – and included six search and rescue dogs, said Col. Farouk Achour, a spokesman, who spoke shortly after his colleagues saved the two children. The situation in Adiyaman was still “critical,” he said.

“Many people come to ask us to help them.”

For days, two brothers had been pleading for help to locate their parents, they said, to no avail. “They’re ignoring us,” said Abdurrahman Calis, 23, a student who traveled from Istanbul after his brother, Osman Calis, a 27-year-old doctor, told him he had lost touch with their parents after the earthquake.

A dozen people lived in the building, and the Calis family lived on the first floor. On Wednesday morning, desperate as another day passed, the brothers joined a group of other relatives trying to sift through the wreckage themselves, even as the entire structure looked set to collapse.

Later in the day, though, there were signs the city was receiving more attention. Large generators and earthmovers could be seen mounted on flatbed trucks heading into town. And at the Calis family’s apartment building, a crane arrived, and then a backhoe – their plea for help answered at last, Abdurrahman said, as he gestured toward what remained of his parents’ bedroom.

Photo for The Washington Post by Alice Martins
Osman Calis stands in front of the rubble of his family’s home in Adiyaman, Turkey, on Feb. 8, 2023.