Surrounded by sorrow, rescue workers arriving in Turkey focus on survivors

After a 7.8 magnitude earthquake violently struck southeastern Turkey in the early hours of Feb. 6, international aid groups started to mobilize. Two Canadians spoke to CBC News on a city block in Kahramanmaras reduced to rubble.

Workers hand out water, blankets, as mass burials take place in city devastated by quake

On the front line of a deadly earthquake | The Breakdown

7 months ago
Duration 10:03
The CBC’s Briar Stewart and Chris Brown take us to the front lines of the rescue efforts in Turkey to talk about the next steps in the mission and what support could come from Canada.

WARNING: This story contains distressing details

After a 7.8 magnitude earthquake violently struck southeastern Turkey in the early hours on Monday, international aid groups started to mobilize as the country began to assess the scale of the disaster.

A man with dark hair, wearing a brown sweater, carries a plastic bag full of bread outside. Behind him, an excavator works to move rubble, casting up some dust.
A man carries bread to hand out to some of the displaced people who were watching rescue efforts in Kahramanmaras, Turkey, on Thursday after the devastating earthquake earlier in the week. (Briar Stewart/CBC)

By the time the region was hit by another earthquake nine hours later, relief workers and volunteers were on their way to Turkey, including two Canadians who are part of the emergency response in the devastated city of Kahramanmaras. 

"We're distributing food, water, blankets, anything that we can get our hands on," said Aysha Syed, the director of fundraising with Islamic Relief Canada. 

Syed and her colleague, Yasmine Alameddine, spoke to CBC news in front of a city block that had been reduced to rubble. 

The wreckage of flattened buildings are shown, including plastic chairs and tables, as well as fabric bits, while a white apartment building still stand further back, against a blue sky.
It's not known how many buildings were destroyed by the quake, but there are gaping holes in Kahramanmaras where apartments once stood. (Dmitry Kozlov/CBC)

Excavators are working to move the heavy layers of concrete and bricks that came crashing down as the apartment buildings collapsed. Mattresses and curtains jutted out from the debris, which rescuers and volunteer residents picked through as they searched for those buried beneath. 

"You just feel the grief but you can also see glimmers of hope every now and then and that is also what is keeping us going," said Syed.

Turkish officials have said that 13.5 million people have been affected by the earthquakes, and the number killed continues to climb over 20,000 as more bodies are pulled out of the rubble. The Canadian government has pledged $10 million in aid, and will match up to $10 million in donations through the Canadian Red Cross.

WATCH | Briar Stewart in Turkey: 

Makeshift morgue captures scale of loss in Turkey

7 months ago
Duration 2:36
WARNING: this story contains graphic images. In Kaharamanmaras, Turkey, grieving relatives file into a makeshift morgue to identify their loved ones killed in the earthquakes that hit Turkey and Syria earlier this week. Outside, survivors with nowhere else to go line the streets while looking for glimmers of hope.

Basic needs

The two women flew in from Toronto on Monday and are part of a 70-person team Islamic Relief has on the ground in southeast Turkey and northwest Syria. 

Syed says the international aid organization has permanent staff on the ground and some of their employees have lost family members in the earthquake. The group has also recruited volunteers and they were handing out food on Thursday, including  packages of date. 

Two women wearing beige headscarves, blue sweatshirts, and black pants and jackets post for a picture on the sidewalk next to a street. One woman wearing a belt bag around her, while the other clasps her hands together. In the background, a blue sky and white buildings are shown.
Yasmine Alameddine, left, and Aysha Syed came to Kahramanmaras as part of the emergency response effort in the devastated city, through the organization Islamic Relief Canada. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

Alameddine, a fundraising regional manager for south and western Ontario, told CBC News that she was struck when a mother came up to her with a young daughter, asking for a blanket. 

"She told me she's been so busy and preoccupied looking for her sister in the rubble she hasn't had time to even think about where or how she's going to sleep," she said. 

Their group was all out of blankets, she said, and it was a reminder of the importance of some of the basic needs at a time of great devastation. 

Entire blocks gone

Before the earthquake, the city of Kahramanmaras had a population of approximately 500,000 people. It sits at the base of the Taurus mountains, and the snow-capped peaks and Mediterranean valleys made for a picturesque view. 

Now entire blocks are gone, and the stench of death hangs in the air and grows stronger as the debris is turned over by the heavy machinery.

A woman wearing a grey headscarf with a light swirl pattern and a brown jacket stands outside a building with yellow and red plastered walls. She's also wearing a face mask pulled down just below her mouth.
A woman looks on amid rescue efforts in Kahramanmaras on Thursday. (Dmitry Kozlov/CBC)

It's not clear how many buildings were destroyed here, but there are giant gaping holes in the city where apartments once stood. Other buildings appear as if they could topple at any moment. Their front façades have crumbled onto the street, and furniture hangs precariously above. 

Traffic chokes the roads as crews, heavy equipment and residents try to navigate the mangled city. 

When CBC was in Kahramanmaras, it took the crew over an hour to travel two kilometres. It's a problem throughout much of the region.

Alameddine says the group is planning to distribute aid in Turkey's southernmost province, Hatay, but she fears it might not be feasible given the gridlock and damaged roads. 

In Kahramanmaras, a sports hall has been turned into a makeshift morgue. Bodies wrapped in blankets and bags lie on the floor as relatives hunch over them, trying to identify their loved ones. 

Two women and two men huddle around the open flame of a fire, seated outside. Behind them is the wreckage of collapsed buildings.
A group of people huddle around a fire in Kahramanmaras on Thursday. (Dmitry Kozlov/CBC)

A small foot wearing socks printed with soccer balls pokes out from one of the small bundles lying on the floor. 

Outside, Hamsa Rajid carries the body of a five-year-old girl. He says she is one of the 15 relatives that he lost in the quake. 

"Their building collapsed and we tried to take them out," he told CBC News. 

"But then it caught fire."

Mass burials

Outside of the morgue, other residents told CBC News they've lost so many relatives that they have to go to multiple locations to claim the bodies. 

Mass burials have already started as Islamic faith calls for the dead to be buried as quickly as possible. 

WATCH | Devastation in Turkey: 

The enormous scale of earthquakes’ destruction in Turkey

7 months ago
Duration 2:41
CBC’s Briar Stewart shows the full scale of the devastation in the Turkish cities of Pazarcık and Gaziantep, located at the epicentre of the second deadly earthquake that struck Turkey.

It is a grim, overwhelming reality that Syed says she won't fully process until she returns home. 

The women say once the immediate aid is handed out, their organization will start focusing on longer-term assistance, including the construction of new homes, and the potential sponsorship of orphans. 

"The hardest thing for me personally has been seeing all of the displaced children," said Syed.

"This traumatic event has changed the course of their life and no matter what we do we won't be able to give them back what they lost."


Briar Stewart

Foreign correspondent

Briar Stewart is CBC's Russia correspondent, currently based in London. She can be reached at or on X @briarstewart