'It changed our lives': Syrian survivor recalls devastating Turkey earthquake

Father of two Mohammed Jaafar says mental scars remain as he tries to rebuild life for his family

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A Syrian father who survived last year's deadly earthquake in Turkey said he keeps bottles of water beside his bed in case disaster strikes again.

A 7.8-magnitude earthquake caused widespread devastation on February 6 last year, killing about 60,000 people in Turkey and neighbouring Syria. Thousands of homes were destroyed.

Mohammed Jaafar, 46, and his family survived the earthquake as walls collapsed around them at their home in Antakya, in southern Turkey.

Mr Jaafar, who has two children aged six and eight, said he is still haunted by the quake 12 months on.

“We are all affected mentally after what we have seen. I always go to sleep with enough bottles of water near my bed as a survival technique if the apartment collapses during another earthquake,” Mr Jaafar told The National.

“A lot of earthquake survivors said water was enough for them to stay alive for days until they were rescued from the debris.”

As buildings crumbled around Mr Jaafar and his family, he led his wife and children outside of their ground-floor apartment in the 11-storey building to seek help.

Mr Jaafar said the family spent days sleeping in their car after the quake as it was not safe to return to their home.

They later moved to Gaziantep where his brother, sister, and other family members were living.

“I rented a studio for my family. We are still afraid of new earthquakes. We are sleeping together away from closets or any heavy objects to avoid its collapse on us if another major earthquake happens,” he added.

As Turkey continues to rebuild, the mental scars of the millions affected remain.

“I'm still sleeping with fear and anxiety thinking something bad will happen to us while we're sleeping,” Mr Jaafar said.

Mr Jaafar said he has been under so much stress that he has started to smoke cigarettes again, despite giving up before the earthquake struck.

“I managed to stop the habit after years of smoking, but now I'm smoking due to anxiety," he said.

The quake was soon followed by a second earthquake of similar strength, with a series of aftershocks.

Mr Jaafar visited his apartment in Antakya a few months ago and said his home was unrecognisable.

“I could not identify my building as it was completely demolished, along with all the other buildings in the neighbourhood. It was just piles of rubble in front of me,” he said.

“I was only able to locate the building by a nearby school which has remained untouched.”

Mr Jaafar said communities are living in the area in caravans.

Government entities are also operating from caravans, as well as some providing basic needs for residents who decided to stay.

“There are still some houses and a few people but all you can see is vast land which used to be buzzing with people a year ago,” he said.

He said his family were given rent support by the government, which has since increased.

“The government support was extended for another year but rent prices have increased due to high demand. I hardly managed to get a studio for my family on the fifth floor or a building at Gaziantep,” he said.

Mr Jaafar, who works with a non-governmental group, said he is still searching for a more suitable home for his family, preferably on the ground floor.

“It is a hard task as the options are limited due to the high demand of people who have migrated to the city seeking shelter,” he said.

He added that his family have adopted their new life in Gaziantep and his children are already enrolled in the local school.

“I feel like I'm not stable or settled yet,” Mr Jaafer said. “The earthquake changed our lives.”

Updated: February 05, 2024, 11:29 AM