Turkish civilians rise to challenge of helping earthquake victims

Volunteers began organising food and other assistance just hours after disaster struck on Monday

Volunteers distribute free meals to earthquake victims in the Turkish city of Diyarbakir. EPA
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The night before a devastating earthquake struck southern Turkey, Sinan Guneri went to bed anticipating a normal week serving kebabs from his restaurant in Diyarbakir’s Yenisehir neighbourhood.

Within 12 hours he was frantically organising shipments of food and aid from the takeaway business, helped by staff, friends and an ad hoc collection of local business people.

Their efforts are just one example of the way people across the country have thrown themselves into the aid effort. Moved by the plight of fellow citizens caught in a disaster that had claimed more than 24,000 lives in the country as of Saturday evening, countless numbers have come together independently of any official prompting to help in any way they can.

“We began by distributing food to all the people we could — emergency workers and ordinary people working on the collapsed buildings, as well as those who were made homeless by the earthquake,” Mr Guneri told The National on Saturday.

His unimposing restaurant, with a sign featuring cartoon character Obelix hanging above its glass door, has now become an informal distribution centre for all kinds of aid supplies, not just food but also tents, blankets and other necessities.

“Three or four trucks left yesterday for Adiyaman,” Mr Guneri said from his business, sitting near sacks of potatoes and crates of bread waiting to be loaded. “So far we have sent nine trucks to places outside Diyarbakir, as well as helping those in our city.”

Diyarbakir, the unofficial capital of Turkey’s Kurdish population, is the easternmost of 10 provinces within the disaster zone. Although just a handful of buildings in the city collapsed, the death toll across the province reached 219 by Saturday.

“We have 13 people here working to provide aid, many of them my family members, but we are working alongside a volunteer group of 60 or 70 people,” Mr Guneri said.

“We distributed 2,000 loaves of bread on the first day. Some people send us money which we use to buy blankets and heaters. The restaurant has become an aid distribution point. We work from early to late — I think I’ve slept about 10 hours over the last six days.

We work from early to late — I think I’ve slept about 10 hours over the last six days
Sinan Guneri, restaurant owner in Diyarbakir

“I get 650 to 700 calls a day and we co-ordinate with people on Twitter and WhatsApp. One WhatsApp group has 1,009 members.”

As the government faced criticism for failing to reach the disaster area in time, other groups also launched far-reaching aid operations.

The Diyarbakir City Protection and Solidarity Platform, a collection of civil society groups ranging from the city’s bar association to trade unions that was formed two months ago, is running its operation from the offices of the city’s Chamber of Commerce.

“The earthquake happened at 4.17 in the morning and by five o’clock we started work for food distribution, shelters, heating and tents,” said Sirac Celik, a trade union worker and member of the platform’s crisis desk.

“Our first priority was Amed and now we’re directing support to other cities,” he added, using the Kurdish name for Diyarbakir. “We’re focused on places like Malatya, Maras, Hatay and Adiyaman.

We now have thousands of volunteers bringing in supplies and sending them out, working 24/7 every day
Sirac Celik, trade union worker

“We now have thousands of volunteers bringing in supplies and sending them out, working 24/7 every day.”

On the floor below the crisis centre, where a fog of cigarette smoke hangs over weary workers fuelled by black tea sipped from disposable cups, families have laid out blankets and a few belongings rescued from homes damaged by the quake and considered too dangerous to return to.

Evin Seker, 30, who usually works for a law firm, has been organising food distribution.

“My main duty is to co-ordinate between those making the food and the places where it is needed,” she said from behind an opulent desk normally occupied by the Chamber of Commerce’s chairman.

“Our motivation comes from wanting to support our people and that’s what we’re working for.”

At a distribution centre set up in a building belonging to a teachers’ association, volunteers form human chains to load aid on to lorries too large to enter the narrow street.

“We have up to 150 people working here, loading food, children’s needs, women’s needs, blankets, shoes, clothing, whatever we can,” Kurdish language teacher Fesih Zirek said. “The association has another building that we can’t use because it's not safe so we just use this two-storey building.”

Aziz Ozkan spoke to The National after driving from Ankara to Diyarbakir via Malatya, a city hit heavily by the quake, to drop off supplies. “The roads are very difficult and progress is slow,” he said.

“About 500,000 people are trying to leave Malatya. Normally it would take seven hours between Ankara and Malatya but it took us 13 hours. It’s not just traffic jams but also the snow.”

For the region’s hard-pressed volunteers, an end to their endeavours seems a distant possibility.

“We’re not sure when it’ll be finished,” Mr Celik said. “Besides what we’re doing now, we also have to help those whose buildings are damaged and can’t return home. It will take at least a year.”

Updated: February 14, 2023, 7:27 AM