Turkey Begins Digging Mass Graves as Earthquake Death Toll Passes 36,000

Municipal grave diggers bury the bodies of four people, three of the them not claimed rela
AP Photo/Francisco Seco

Authorities in Turkey are struggling to house the thousands of people left destitute after a series of massive earthquakes in the country last week, rushing to build tents and transfer earthquake victims to shelters a week later.

The devastating earthquake, hitting eastern Turkey and northwest Syria, registered a 7.7 magnitude and caused a 7.6 magnitude aftershock hours later. The first earthquake hit in the early morning hours of February 6 – as most people slept or remained indoors to avoid the frigid winter temperatures – while the second occurred as first responders flocked to collapsing buildings attempting to rescue survivors:

The areas most affected are home to the majority of both Turkey’s and Syria’s Kurdish populations. In Syria, the Rojava region largely operates separately from the central government of dictator Bashar al-Assad, complicating rescue efforts as the Assad regime largely fails to cooperate with ruling Kurdish authorities. In Turkey, basic food aid has reached some of the largest affected cities, but in many communities, survivors have had to rely on the generosity of local small businesses, and many say they have not eaten in days.

The Turkish Interior Ministry confirmed 31,643 deaths due to the earthquake as of Monday, while the Assad regime has documented more than 4,500 deaths – likely a severe undercount given the lack of government presence in many of the affected areas of the country. The sums total over 36,000 confirmed deaths.

In the mostly Kurdish city of Adiyaman, Turkey, local authorities have begun digging mass graves for the unidentified dead to prevent bodies from decomposing and potentially spreading disease. The Kurdish outlet Rudaw reported on Sunday, citing local officials, that residents have buried 500 unidentified people and counting, an operation requiring 15 bulldozers:

Adiyaman residents told Rudaw there is essentially no national government presence in the city.

“The people who are helping here are our own people, the Kurmanj. They give us water and food and they have brought everything. There is no shortage but we have not seen any assistance from the government,” one resident, whose home was reduced to rubble, said.

Reaching Adiyaman at all has become a challenge, as the highways to the city were also damaged by the earthquake. In a shocking video posted by the Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet, the highway connecting Adiyaman to Malatya, about 90 miles north, boasts an eight-inch-wide crack:

In the city of Gaziantep – one of the largest affected with a population of about two million, and located about 150 miles southwest of Adiyaman – local businesses rushed to fill the gaps left by the government and aid organizations. The Qatari news network Al Jazeera found the restaurants, cafes, and other businesses left standing offering shelter, tea, bread, and other essentials as best they could. The newly homeless build fires in the middle of streets to stand around in, as the bitter cold threatens the lives of the most vulnerable. Many of those whose cars survived the earthquake have moved into them as they fear their barely standing homes may soon collapse.

“If we didn’t die in the quake, we might die of hunger or cold,” a man identified only as Ahmet, receiving a bowl of noodles from a local restaurant, told Al Jazeera.

Another man sheltering at a cafe told Al Jazeera, “We never thought we would prefer the pandemic to what we are experiencing now.”

The Turkish newspaper Hurriyet, which has largely published coverage favorable to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after being bought out by one of his allies, admitted in a report on Monday that Turkey is struggling to obtain tents or other temporary shelter for the likely millions of displaced.

“After the two deadly earthquakes that rattled the country’s south, emergency needs such as food, clothing and blankets in the first days have been replaced by tents, tent mats, quilts, pillows and stoves,” Hurriyet reported. “With temperatures dropping to minus degrees at night, shelter and heating have become a grave matter of concern for earthquake victims who are dealing with a lack of basic necessities.”

Hurriyet noted that the Erdogan government has plans to use a local stadium and university to house the homeless in Adiyaman.

Anadolu Agency, the official media outlet of the Turkey government, has chosen to highlight, instead, the dramatic rescue of those improbably still alive under crumbled buildings. Rescuers saved at least four people on Sunday, meaning they lived under rubble for nearly a week without food or water.

“Sibel Kaya was rescued from the rubble of a five-story building in Islahiye district of Gaziantep province. The 40-year-old woman was saved 170 hours after the quake,” Anadolu detailed. “Another miracle rescue came when teams pulled Erengul Onder, 60, from the rubble after 166 hours in Besni district of Adiyaman province.”

“Seven-year-old Mustafa was rescued in Hatay province by teams from Konya province after being trapped under the rubble for 163 hours,” the report continued. “Nafize Yilmaz, 62, was pulled from the rubble in Nurdagi in Hatay, Türkiye’s southernmost province. She was also trapped for 163 hours.”

In neighboring Syria, those living far from the influence of the Assad regime have denounced the government not just for not providing help, but for allegedly stealing humanitarian aid supplies.

“People send aid to Jindris but they [authorities] do not allow it in, instead stealing it,” a 13-year-old boy, Rashid Mohammed, told Rudaw. Jindris, Syria, is a predominantly Kurdish community.

“They take a few photos with the aid and then leave,” Mohammed denounced.
Humanitarian groups have expressed particular concern that, given the lack of potable water in earthquake-affected regions of Syria, disease could increase the death toll.

“There was a perfect storm brewing before the earthquake – of increasing food insecurity, collapsing healthcare systems, the lack of access to safe water and poor sanitation,” UNICEF official Eva Hines told Al Jazeera. “More than half of people in Syria depend on unsafe alternative water sources when it comes to their water needs. And that, of course, increases vulnerability to fast-spreading waterborne diseases such as cholera.”

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