OPINION: One month on… the earthquake aftermath in Antakya

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OPINION: One month on… the earthquake aftermath in Antakya

"Nothing quite strikes fear into the heart as the destruction": World Jewish Relief updates Jewish News, one month after Turkey's devastating earthquake

Kai Hopkins from World Jewish Relief, on the fall-out in Antakya, southern Turkey, one month after a devastating earthquake struck the country.

4.17am. It’s a time I hear again and again. 4.17am. A time that usually comes and goes, quietly and unnoticed. But this 4.17am was different, this 4.17am left its indelible mark, in every sense.

A blanket of dust coats everything, sitting in the back of the throat and stinging the eyes. Just as thick hangs an eerie stillness, an unnatural silence that feels deafening. Occasional tower blocks stand awkwardly at impossible angles with whole sections missing, giving a glimpse into the lives they once housed, while all around lie mounds of what was once a city, now reduced to rubble.

Look long enough, and amid the grey concrete mass recognisable shapes slowly emerge: a car, a bed, a flower-patterned tablecloth. I am in Antakya in southern Turkey, where the devastating impact of the earthquake cannot be expressed with words. Equally, pictures cannot accurately portray the sheer size and scale of the damage.

Even areas relatively unscarred by the immense power have become ghost towns, their fearful residents seeking safety further afield. And I understand why – nothing quite strikes fear into the heart as the destruction visible here.

It’s a fear Jamali knows too well, a fear that arrived without warning at 4.17am. It initially felt like an explosion, he says, a sudden surge upwards, momentarily lifting his sleeping family from their beds. Then a spinning, as if his apartment was turning around and around, and only then did the shaking start. He describes the walls caving inwards as he frantically tried to get out with his wife and son, and how neighbours jumped from open windows in desperate attempts to escape.

He talks of the initial aftermath, the searching through debris for survivors and those he found – as well as those he didn’t. Four weeks on and his pain, his fear, his anguish have not diminished one bit. It fills the space between us, and I must admit as I walk away, I feel I am carrying some of it with me.

Southern Turkey is no stranger to earthquakes, but the size and scale of this one is unparalleled. The stories I hear, stories like Jamali’s, stories that all start at 4.17am paint a similarly harrowing picture. There are millions across the affected area who share that sense of anguish, but emotions are mixed – the initial sense of disbelief is slowly giving way to anger too; anger at the slow speed at which help arrived in some areas, and anger that perhaps so much of the damage, and resulting deaths, could have been prevented if proper building regulations had been followed.

The inquest into what happened, or in some cases did not happen, will take time, but in the meantime people like Jamali are left in an unimaginable state.

Our partner – the International Blue Crescent – has been operating in this area for years and were quick to respond to the earthquakes. Thanks to the amazing response from World Jewish Relief’s supporters, within days we were able to help IBC provide food and shelter to those affected and send life-saving supplies over to northern Syria. But such is the nature of this particular crisis, that many of IBC’s staff too have been impacted by it. They too have lost homes and loved ones, and now live with this continual backdrop of fear.

This all started at 4.17am, but there is no telling when it will end. Four weeks on and while the search and rescue efforts have ended, the process of cleaning up has only just begun.

The rebuilding of whole cities will take years. More concerningly perhaps, is that the mental scars will remain long after. I just hope there will come a point for all those here, people like Jamali, people who are at the frontline of the response like our partner, at which 4.17am no longer holds the dreaded significance it currently does. Only then will they once again sleep soundly.

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  • Kai Hopkins is head of humanitarian programmes at World Jewish Relief
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