Hope turns to despair in Turkey over lack of quake help

Mesut Hancer holds the hand of his 15-year-old daughter Irmak, who died in the earthquake in Kahramanmaras, close to the quake's epicentre, the day after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck the country's southeast, on February 7, 2023. - Rescuers in Turkey and Syria braved frigid weather, aftershocks and collapsing buildings, as they dug for survivors buried by an earthquake that killed more than 5,000 people. Some of the heaviest devastation occurred near the quake's epicentre between Kahramanmaras and Gaziantep, a city of two million where entire blocks now lie in ruins under gathering snow. (Photo by Adem ALTAN / AFP)

It is the last time Mesut Hançer will ever hold his 15-year-old daughter’s hand.

And despite the icy weather, he refuses to let it go, caressing her waxy fingers after she died in the fearsome earthquake that devastated southern Turkey and neighboring Syria.

Wrapped up in a fluorescent orange jacket, Hançer knelt next to Irmak’s lifeless body as it lay under the rubble on a mattress near the quake’s epicenter in Kahramanmaras province.

He was too grief-stricken to speak. He simply sat and held her protruding hand, the rest of her body still hidden by huge slabs of concrete.

Irmak is one of more than 6,256 people who died in Turkey and Syria after the 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit Monday, injuring thousands and leaving millions unable to return home because their apartments either no longer exist or could crumble from an aftershock.

For Irmak, it is too late.

But as each hour brings more horror, fury and frustration are rising in Kahramanmaras, where residents are lashing out at the state for what they see as its slow response to Turkey’s biggest disaster in decades.

“Where is the state? Where are they? I can’t retrieve my brother from the ruins. I can’t reach my nephew. Look around here. There is no state official here for God’s sake,” Ali Sağıroğlu shouted in exasperation.

His father and brother have vanished in the rubble, their fates unknown.

The devastation is overwhelming. Eight apartment buildings more than 10 stories high in one area of the city center collapsed during the first quake that hit before dawn.

Several powerful aftershocks have followed.

Very few were able to escape from the eight buildings, and it is believed around 150 people lived in each block.

‘No compassion’

Sağıroğlu wasn’t alone in his anger.

No longer willing to wait for help to arrive, some families used their bare hands to find their loved ones, dead or alive.

AFP teams witnessed many areas of Kahramanmaraş in which groups of survivors stood alone, without any government teams offering food, medical aid or other support.

An eerie silence had descended on the city center by Tuesday afternoon.

“Yesterday, we could hear a lot of people in the ruins crying for help, but this morning, it is silent — they must be dead because of the cold,” a 40-something-year-old man said, refusing to give his name.

Those fortunate to be alive huddled around bonfires to keep warm, while others sought shelter from harsh wind and rain in their cars.

Temperatures dropped to -3 degrees Celsius (26 degrees Fahrenheit) overnight.

Cuma Yıldız, an elderly man in his sixties, accused officials of showing no mercy.

“Where are they now, where?” he asked. “They don’t have mercy; they don’t have compassion,” he thundered.

Under pressure heading into a tough May election, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Tuesday promised to spend 100 billion liras ($5.3 billion) on various quake support measures.

He also pledged that “many” members of the armed forces would soon assist in search and rescue efforts.

Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu separately went on live television from Kahramanmaraş to insist that 2,000 search and rescue personnel were at work in the province.

Growing desperation in Hatay

Onur Kayai was so desperate for help in nearby Hatay province, close to the Syrian border, that he chased after two disaster agency vehicles to help rescue his mother and brother — but to no avail.

“We need urgent help,” the 40-year-old NGO worker said. “My mother’s voice is louder, but my brother makes no sound,” he said, pacing in front of a damaged building.

Semire Çoban, a kindergarten teacher, was equally distressed.

She patiently waited for rescuers to arrive, but agonized that her nephew and two other trapped relatives were not responding to her calls.

“The teams prefer to work in the rubble where they can hear voices,” she said.

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