After almost 20 hours of driving we arrived in Kahramanmaras, to an indescribable scene. A truly apocalyptic scale of destruction. Building after building, block after block, had been razed to the ground.
Rescue teams worked frantically to reach people buried in the rubble of that first magnitude 7.8 earthquake on February 6.
I was awakened just after 4am that day by Al Jazeera’s news desk to learn that an earthquake had hit southern Turkey, where my family is from and still lives. No one knew at the time how strong it was.
But before I could travel to check them, our team had to travel to the epicenter of the earthquake, Kahramanmaras.
Silence was occasionally called when rescuers heard a voice from beneath the collapsed buildings. Hundreds of people huddled on and around the rubble, frightened and exhausted, but still hoping to hear the voices of their loved ones.
Berrin Izgin’s son and husband were still under the rubble, she told me. She had already lost a child and daughter-in-law and was waiting, hoping to get her son and husband back. Hours later, her son Mehmet was taken out. But her husband, despite all efforts, remained under the rubble that night.
There were dozens of people under the same collapsed block, many still alive, their families anxiously waiting in the freezing cold.
In Kahramanmaras, nearly 6,000 people died and about 1,000 buildings collapsed. Rescue efforts were frantic, with families refusing to leave until their relatives emerged from under the rubble. Dead or alive.
With nowhere else to go, our team slept in our car on freezing nights, huddled in sleeping bags. Days passed as the tragedy unfolded. On the morning of the fourth day, the temperature was still below zero.
Zahide had been near where we parked our car for over 80 hours, hoping to find her son, daughter-in-law, and grandchild lying under the rubble, staring at them non-stop.
When she saw our camera, she said, “Report this so that people know my pain. My loved ones are burning under this rubble.”
Besides her, a Syrian family had six relatives in the same collapsed building. They said they fled the civil war and came to Kahramanmaras in 2013 to start a new, safer life. Turkish and Syrian families shared the same pain.
People tried to cope, relying on help and sleeping in cars as the aftershocks continued. “God will save us. We are refugees now,” said an elderly Turkish woman, who could barely walk.