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In Istanbul, earthquake survivors rebuild shattered lives

Istanbul, Turkey – When the bed Hacer Guven, 81, slept in collapsed all the way from the fourth floor to the ground floor of her apartment building in Antakya, in Turkey’s southernmost province of Hatay, the impact of the February 6 earthquake was extended into the felt from afar. Istanbul, where some of her close relatives lived.

“We have this family chat and everyone is in the group chat to get news from someone (there),” Irem Mursaloglu, Hacer’s 37-year-old granddaughter, tells of the events of a month ago, when Antakya was hit along with vast areas in Turkey and Syria by devastating earthquakes.

“They said there was no help, but we couldn’t believe it, you want to believe there is help,” says Irem, who lives in Istanbul with her husband, mother and young children. “Then we started randomly calling people ourselves and asking for excavators, for cranes.”

Hacer remained in that bed of rubble for three days, rain seeping through the rubble, her back badly bruised, nestled between the collapsed ceiling and the wardrobe that diverted its fall and saved her life.

“When I saw no one came to get me, I worried about my children and grandchildren, I was afraid something had happened to them,” says Hacer, sitting in a spacious living room near her granddaughter’s house in a leafy, historical neighborhood of Istanbul. . Her hands twirl around a tissue, but her face tries to hide any sign of sadness as she looks at the TV screen playing news in the background.

When the six-story building where she lived with Selahattin — her husband of 65 — collapsed, it killed him and 26 others, according to the family. She is one of only five survivors of the building.

In a dressing gown, she looks considerably thinner than in the family photos Irem shows of large family gatherings in the apartment.

“This is where we all spent the most precious holidays, weekends, bayrams (festivals),” she continues. “This was the place where I spent my entire childhood,” says Irem, explaining that she grew up in a building just a three-minute walk away.

“We saw that collapse into a pile of rubble, and now it was there blocking the road.”

The search for the missing continues

In the afternoon of the third day, Hacer was pulled from the rubble, wrapped in a blanket, and taken to a field hospital in her son’s car.

More than 51,000 people are now known to have died in the disaster in Turkey and Syria, but that number could rise as thousands are still missing.

“We are lucky that we were able to find my grandfather and bury him properly,” says Irem, explaining that her grandfather Selahattin, who was 91, was found on the fourth day and was only recognizable by a ring which he wore.

Hacer was evacuated from the field hospital for treatment. But amidst the chaos of those hours, the family didn’t know where she would be taken. They finally found her several hours later in a hospital in Adana, a town in the region that sustained significantly less damage, after searching every room to find her.

Some family members are still missing.

“My cousin, his wife and their two-and-a-half-year-old daughter (are still missing),” says Irem. “We go to hospitals one by one and check the rooms, just like we found (my grandmother). Ankara, Izmir, Adana, Mersin,” she adds, listing towns in the region and further afield where the injured and survivors have been transferred.

“We also went to Kayseri,” Hacer interjects.

The rubble of the cousin’s building has now been removed after search teams dug two floors below without being able to find the bodies, which may have been burned in a fire that broke out in the building.

“(My cousins) went to all the cemeteries to show pictures,” says Irem.

‘We can’t find them. We can’t get to their bodies.”

‘Nothing to go back to’

According to data collected by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), at least 2.7 million people have been displaced across the region – of these, about 1.1 million have sought shelter in other parts of the country, some in government-controlled provided temporary accommodation facilities, including hotels and public buildings in cities such as Antalya, Aydin and Mugla. The estimate is based on official government data, but thousands of people have moved on their own to stay with family or a support network.

According to Turkish authorities, more than 160,000 buildings containing 520,000 apartments have collapsed or been severely damaged.

As cities fill up with people seeking safety, rents have risen rapidly, adding to the country’s already serious housing crisis, where rents have already more than doubled in some cities over the past year. Tent cities have been built across the region and the government has started building container homes, but many remain homeless.

“I was with my family and we were scared. We took my two dogs and came by car,” said Ilker Cihan Biner, 39, who drove from Iskenderun in Hatay to Darica, a town in Kocaeli province, south of Istanbul, to stay with relatives.

“It’s a bit overcrowded where we stay,” he says, adding that he’s waiting for his house to be assessed for damage. “I want to go back, but I don’t know when.”

Hacer’s husband Salahettin used to run a jewelry store in the historic center of Antakya, an ancient city that used to be the capital of the Roman province of Syria. One of his sons had taken over the business in later years.

Hacer and her husband Salahettin had raised their children in Antakya, but many members of their family moved to Istanbul away from a city now destroyed (courtesy Hacer Guven and family)

“My grandfather had built it from scratch. It had historical significance for us,” says Irem. “But now everything is gone. (My uncle) had to pack all the jewelry he could keep before coming (to Istanbul).”

He and his family were among the lucky survivors to find a place in the northern district of Sariyer, considered one of the city’s most earthquake-safe districts, and now in high demand. They plan to go back as soon as possible.

“There’s nothing to go back to,” says Irem.

As for Hacer, she knows that most likely this will not happen in her lifetime.

“I’m happy to be here with my grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” she says stoically.