The diggers had been working around the clock on a side street of the Turkish city of Şanlıurfa when a sudden hush descended and the grinding of heavy machinery came to a halt. Then the rescue team cried out in unison: “Is there anyone under there?”
They stood still for a minute in eerie silence, listening for a response. When nothing came, they returned to their work undeterred.
Those still under the rubble of the collapsed apartment block in the city’s Yenişehir district included Mustafa Abak, a popular local football coach, his wife Hacer and their six-year-old son Ahmet. They are just three of the tens of thousands who were caught up in the terrifying earthquake that struck in the early hours of Monday, devastating south-eastern Turkey and a swath of northern Syria, claiming more than 7,200 lives and counting.
Their close-knit family has kept vigil outside the building – crying, praying and waiting – after being unable to get through to them by phone. “They are very, very loved,” said Mahmut Dikayak (52), one of their in-laws. “This is a very tough time for us.”
Hacer Abak’s younger sister, Selma Uzundağ, still cannot believe the huge force of the quake that hit the city. “We’ve never experienced anything like it,” she said. “The shaking just wouldn’t stop. It was so strong.”
Şanlıurfa is the capital of one of 15 provinces across Turkey and Syria struck by the worst natural disaster the region has experienced in decades. Known formerly as Urfa, it earned the prefix Şanlı — meaning glorious — for the resistance its people put up against occupying French forces after the first World War.
But glory is now in short supply as families grapple with grief, anger and despondency. “I feel like this world is meaningless,” said Hacı Bulut, a retiree with bloodshot eyes, as he waited for news of six missing relatives, aged from 22 to 90, outside another collapsed apartment block. “By now I’m just hoping that half of them come out safe.”
A few hours later, all six were pulled out of the rubble dead, a local official said.
We’ve never experienced anything like it. The shaking just wouldn’t stop. It was so strong
Urfa, a province of about two million people, has suffered less damage than some of its neighbours. Still, officials estimated that roughly 100 locals had been killed and about 20 buildings had collapsed. The region near the Syrian border is already one of Turkey’s poorest, and locals are anxiously wondering how it can get back on its feet.
Countless buildings in Şanlıurfa have cracks or other visible damage and several of its mosques have lost parts of their minarets. The city’s new flyover, inaugurated just two months ago by president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, suffered a visible fissure that a municipal worker was attempting to repair with what appeared to be silicon sealant.
The city centre smelled of dust and woodsmoke generated by dozens of braziers set up in the streets to help the rescue teams, police and other workers keep warm. Most of the shops were closed and residential streets almost deserted, as fear of aftershocks and further collapses prompted many people to spend the night in their cars despite freezing night-time temperatures.
Others have taken shelter in surrounding villages, where they can stay in one- or two-storey farmhouses rather than high-rise blocks.
In the courtyard of the İbrahim Tatlıses primary school, named after a famous local singer, about 120 members of the city’s large population of Syrian refugees sheltered under a yellow tarpaulin tent erected by the municipality.
One man originally from Deir ez-Zour in Syria, who gave his name as Abdulrahman, expressed bitterness that they were given no blankets or heaters.
Among the city’s Turkish residents, frustration centred on the perceived slowness of first responders in reaching the neighbouring provinces of Adiyaman and Hatay, which have suffered enormous damage.
Theories abounded about what went wrong in a city that, like most across Turkey, witnessed dramatic urbanisation in recent decades. Şanlıurfa’s population has ballooned from about 100,000 in 1970 to somewhere near one million, fuelling a construction boom that experts have long warned included slapdash building practices.
A relative of one of those trapped whispered about business owners who she claimed used influence with local officials to get away with dubious building practices. “It was a case of ‘don’t see, don’t hear, don’t tell’,” she said.
Yet, in deeply polarised Turkey, responses are often coloured by existing political identities. Erdogan won 65 per cent of the vote in Urfa in the 2018 presidential elections, and several locals praised his government for its investment in infrastructure during his 20 years in power.
One local official said it was too early to speculate on the causes of individual collapses. An onlooker, who asked not to be named, agreed. “After we’ve dealt with the pain, we’ll talk about blame,” he added. “Right now, we just want to see our loved ones and give them a hug.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023