With rescues ending, survivors in Turkey who have lost everything wonder what's next

Turkey's post-earthquake response has entered a new, grim and likely much angrier phase, where finding and burying the dead is the priority.

Growing cemeteries and tent cities define next phase of country's earthquake disaster

A group of workers sit next to a stack of wooden coffins.
Volunteers who clean the bodies of earthquake victims take a break next to a pile of coffins in Osmaniye, Turkey, on Saturday. Two powerful earthquakes struck southern Turkey and northern Syria last Monday, killing at least 28,000 people. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

For much of the past week, the frantic work of rescuing people from the debris of Turkey's earthquake seemed almost delicate at times, with volunteers often sifting through ruined buildings using only their hands and shovels.

But in the southern city of Osmaniye, that routine ended this weekend.

Instead, in the historic central core, where perhaps 800 or more people died in collapsed structures, backhoes and giant industrial-sized diggers are using their enormous scoops to pour debris into dump trucks and haul it away.

Gone are the quiet pauses to stop and listen for signs of life from below.

Turkey's post-earthquake response has entered a new, grim and likely much angrier phase, where finding and burying the dead is the priority.

A few blocks away, at the city's freshly expanded cemetery, there is an almost assembly-line efficiency to the job. Several white tents with gurneys inside are tended by masked volunteers in white hazmat suits and long aprons.

Two construction vehicles in operation dig through rubble as workers watch from a distance.
With the search for survivors over, heavy equipment now removes debris from a collapsed building in Osmaniye on Saturday. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Under Islamic tradition, the bodies are removed from the coffin and washed by volunteers before being buried and wrapped in a shroud or blanket.

An enormous pile of disused coffins — possibly several hundred — are left in the parking lot, set aside to be reused to bring more bodies to the makeshift mortuary.

CBC News was asked not to talk to families or volunteers at the site, so as not to make their grief worse.

We were allowed, however, to walk through the cemetery, where we saw a newly prepared field, filled with countless fresh graves and a backhoe piling dirt over the newly buried.

Survivors face challenging months ahead

By the awful standards of last Monday's twin earthquakes in southern Turkey and northern Syria, Osmaniye escaped the kind of catastrophic damage that virtually annihilated such cities as Antakya and Kahramanmaras.

Nonetheless, the survivors now face long and difficult months ahead.

A small backhoe is used to dig holes in a cemetery.
A backhoe is used to dig mass graves for earthquake victims. The cemetery in Osmaniye has been rapidly expanded since the earthquake six days ago. (Chris Brown/CBC)

Next to the Masal amusement park, a host of government and non-government organizations have set up a relief centre with hundreds of tents and stalls, and volunteers offering hot meals.

"People are full of fear," said an administrator, who didn't want to be named as he was unauthorized to speak to foreign journalists.

It's the kind of fear that comes with having your daily routine totally dismantled and all of your support systems disintegrated, he explained.

People stand outside a row of white tents.
People are shown outside rows of tents at a humanitarian centre in Osmaniye on Saturday. The facility can hold 4,000 people at a time, and there are 11 such camps in the city, which had a pre-quake population of 250,000. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

He said some families are settling in for what could be months at the camp, while others plan to stay only long enough to make arrangements to live with family members in other cities.

"I hope no one else in the world ever has to witness such a disaster," said Ibrahim Ergen, who until the earthquake hit worked at a local Osmaniye restaurant as a driver delivering meals.

"The restaurant is now under the rubble. I will need to try to find another job, so let's see," he said.

Several men at the humanitarian centre said they plan to stick around because they believe the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will quickly launch a rebuilding campaign and that they'll get some kind of work in construction.

Destruction in Antakya

At least in Osmaniye, it's possible to contemplate buildings being repaired and businesses reopening.

However, in other parts of the earthquake zone that CBC News visited over the past week, it's hard to imagine a rebuilding effort beginning soon, if ever.

In Antakya, the capital of Hatay province near the border with Syria, it appeared as if almost every building in the city suffered significant damage — and practically every structure in the city centre was either unlivable or had collapsed completely.

On Ataturk Street, apartment block after apartment block toppled over sideways, falling on each other and triggering a chain reaction like a row of toppling dominoes.

Several apartment buildings collapse into each other.
On Ataturk Street in Antakya, Turkey, apartment buildings have fallen over sideways and collapsed on top of each other, creating a domino effect. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

With many of those 12-storey buildings now pancaked into three or four metres of pulverized concrete, no one may ever know how many people were asleep inside when the quake hit and were killed.

"It's tragic," volunteer Evrim Çakir said as she struggled to keep her composure while co-ordinating food and shelter for people at a camp on Antakya's riverbank.

"Friends and relatives of every person you see here are under the rubble," she said, motioning to the hundreds of people at the camp who in an instant became homeless.

She said what worries her the most is the city's sanitary situation — and especially the impact that's having on the mental health of women.

"We have no portable toilets, and existing ones are unusable," Çakir said.

"Women cry while asking for underwear or sanitary pads — having to ask [a stranger] turns it into something traumatic."

A worker in a fluorescent vest writes on a pad of paper.
Volunteer Evrim Çakir helps survivors of the earthquake in Antakya on Friday. She says what worries her the most is the city's sanitary situation — and especially the impact that's having on the mental health of women. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Also offering help at the humanitarian centre is Dr. Metin Budak, who practised medicine for 39 years in Antakya, before the quake destroyed his clinic and killed many of his staff members.

Like practically everyone CBC News spoke to in the city, Budak has been sleeping outside or in his car for the past week.

"People are in deep shock," he said, adding that he worries the anguish — and anger — of survivors is about to get much worse.

"The real psychological collapse will come after the shock wears off," he said.

When Budak was asked about his own situation — and the fate of the staff at his clinic — he said he couldn't talk about it and wiped tears from his eyes.

A woman clutches several loaves of bread to her chest.
A woman picks up loaves of bread for her family at a humanitarian centre in Osmaniye on Saturday. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Unlike in Osmaniye, where toughing it out for several months may be an option, that's likely not possible in Antakya. Too many basic services are gone.

The single main highway out of the city has been jammed with traffic for days, with an exodus of people trying to get out.

Budak, the doctor at the riverbank humanitarian centre, said he feels as though Antakya's 2,000 years as a thriving place of commerce and culture may be over.

"I'm afraid it will become a kind of ghost city."


Chris Brown

Foreign Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s London bureau. Previously in Moscow, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.