Sabriye Karan’s late husband worked for Turkey’s national railway company for 32 years and her daughter Nehir grew up on trains. After strong earthquakes hit Turkey last month that damaged her home, she and Nehir moved into a house.
“We never thought we would live here,” says Sabriye, who has been sharing a two-bed cabin with 13-year-old Nehir for the past 18 days. “Normally it is wonderful to travel by train. But now it’s different.”
More than 1.5 million people have been left homeless after the February 6 earthquakes, which killed some 50,000 people in Turkey and Syria. Survivors have taken shelter in tents, container homes, hotel resorts and even train carriages in Iskenderun, a port city in Hatay province hit hard by the earthquakes.
Although Sabriye and Nehir’s third floor flat was only lightly hit and cracks appeared in the walls, they are afraid to go back. Subsequent earthquakes and aftershocks have caused further damage to weakened buildings and authorities have warned people that it is unsafe for many to enter.
Iskenderun station is open, but two tracks are packed with wagons carrying hundreds of survivors. The first to arrive, like Sabriye and Nehir, found sleeping cabins. Others sleep upright on chairs.
Yusuf Kurma, 20, and Aysel Ozcelik, also 20, held hands in a carriage. The couple, planning to get married, ran towards each other after the initial shock. Now they might postpone the wedding. “We can’t have a wedding when we have so many deaths,” Ozcelik said.
Stepladders and small benches are scattered on the rails to help people get to the carriages. Occasionally, a station worker warns survivors walking on the tracks that a train is approaching.
At first, Sabriye and Nehir would startle every time a passing train blew its horn. “Now we’re used to it,” said the 57-year-old law firm clerk.
Their narrow cabin, as wide as a train window, can hold a few essentials and is warmer than a tent on cold nights. They spend at least 18 hours a day indoors, leaving only to take short walks around the station and queue for breakfast and dinner, served by auxiliary groups.
The sparse companionship since the earthquake turned their lives upside down has taken a toll on their mental health, Sabriye said. Her husband died of COVID-19 in 2020 and she struggled to cope with the loss, now compounded by the trauma of the earthquake.
“I feel so alone,” she said. “I miss our social life and drinking coffee with the neighbors.”
The mother and daughter visit their apartment for a few hours every other day. They carefully move through it, but they shower, do the laundry and have some food. As they leave, Sabriye recites a prayer.
“I don’t know if when I come back it will still be standing or not,” she said.
After local authorities determined that their building was only moderately damaged and therefore safe, the couple tried to sleep at home again. But when they felt what they thought was another quake, they panicked and fled, Sabriye said.
“We’re too scared to go home, especially at night.”
She insists that she will return to her house one day and has left the contents intact. She put the television on the floor and put pillows around it, in case there was another shock.
For now, the impermanence usually associated with train stations has evolved into an ambivalent permanence for the two.
But even in the relative safety of the train car, the fear lingers. While a train official was repairing the tracks one night, the train jerked, causing Nehir to gasp and cling to her mother.
“Here, when we shake, people die,” Sabriye said.