When the war broke out in Ukraine, Aydin Sisman’s relatives fled to the ancient city of Antakya, in a southeastern corner of Turkey that borders Syria.
They may have escaped one disaster, but another found them in their new home.
They were staying with Sisman’s Ukrainian mother-in-law when her building collapsed last Monday when a 7.8-magnitude earthquake ripped through much of Antakya, devastating the region in what some in Turkey are calling the disaster of the century.
“We have Ukrainian guests who fled the war, and they are also inside. We have had no contact,” said Sisman, whose Turkish father-in-law was also trapped under the rubble of the 10-year-old apartment building.
As rescuers dug through piles of rubble, Sisman seemed to have given up hope.
Millions of refugees, like Sisman’s relatives, have found a haven in Turkey, fleeing wars and local conflicts in countries as close as Syria to as far away as Afghanistan.
There is at least 3.6 million Syrians who have fled their homeland’s war since 2011arriving in drops or en masse, sometimes invading the border, to seek safety from punishing bombing, chemical attacks and starvation. More than 300,000 people have come to escape their own conflicts and difficultiesaccording to the United Nations.
For them, the earthquake was just the latest tragedy, one that many are still too shocked to comprehend.
“This is the biggest disaster we’ve ever seen, and we’ve seen a lot”said Yehia Sayed Ali, 25, a university student whose family moved to Antakya six years ago to escape the Syrian war at its height.
His mother, two cousins and another relative died in the earthquake. On Saturday, he sat outside his demolished two-story building waiting for rescuers to help dig up his body.
“Not a single Syrian family has not lost a relative, a loved one” in this quake, said Ahmad Abu Shaar, who ran a shelter for Syrian refugees in Antakya that is now a pile of rubble.
Abu Shaar said people are looking for their loved ones and many have refused to leave Antakya even though the quake has left the city without habitable structures, electricity, water or heating. Many sleep in the streets or in the shadows of broken buildings.
“People are still living in shock. No one could have imagined this,” Abu Shaar said.
Certainly not Sisman, who flew from Qatar to Turkey with his wife to help find his in-laws and their Ukrainian relatives.
“Right now, my mother-in-law and father-in-law are inside. They are under the rubble… There were no rescue teams. I went up alone, took a look and walked. I saw bodies and we pulled them out from under the rubble. Some headless,” she said.
Construction workers examining the rubble told Sisman that while the top of the building was solid, the garage and foundation weren’t as strong.
“When they collapsed, that’s when the building was crushed,” said a shocked Sisman. He seemed to have accepted that his relatives didn’t make it out alive.
Overwhelmed by trauma, Abdulqader Barakat desperately pleaded for international help to help rescue his children trapped under the concrete in Antakya.
“There are four. We take out two and two are still (in) for hours. We hear their voices and they are reacting. We need (rescue) squads,” she said.
In the Syrian shelter, Mohammed Aloolo sat in a circle surrounded by his children who escaped from the building that was swaying and finally folding like an accordion.
He arrived in Antakya in May from a refugee camp along the Turkish-Syrian border. He had survived artillery shelling and fighting in his hometown in the central Syrian province of Hama, but he called his survival in the quake a miracle.
Other relatives were not so lucky. Two nieces and their families remain under the rubble, she said, fighting back tears.
“I don’t wish this on anyone. I can’t say anything to describe this.”Aloolo said.
Scenes of despair and mourning can be found throughout the region that only days before was a peaceful haven for those fleeing war and conflict.
At a cemetery in the city of Elbistan, some 320 kilometers (200 miles) north of Antakya, a Syrian family wept and prayed as they buried one of their own. Naziha Al-Ahmad, a mother of four, was pulled dead from the rubble of her new home. Two of her daughters were seriously injured, including one who lost her toes.
“My wife was good, very good. Affectionate, kind, a good wife, God bless her soul,” Ahmad Al-Ahmad said. “The neighbors died, and we died with them.”
The graves are filling up fast.
At the Turkey-Syria border, people transferred body bags to a truck waiting to take the remains to Syria for burial in their homeland. Among them was the body of Khaled Qazqouz’s 5-year-old niece, Tasneem Qazqouz.
Tasneem and her father were killed when the earthquake struck the border town of Kirikhan.
“We pulled it out from under the destruction, from under the rocks. The whole building fell,” Qazqouz said. “We worked for three days to get it out.”
Qazqouz signed his niece’s name on the body bag before sending it to the truck headed for Syria.
He prayed as he let her go.
“Say hello to your dad and give him my wishes. Say hello to your grandfather and your uncle and everyone,” she yelled. “Between the destruction and the rubble, we have nothing now. Life has become so difficult.”
(with information from AP)
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