March 8, 2023
SEOUL – Two days after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit southeastern Turkey and northwestern Syria on Feb. 6, South Korea dispatched a relief team of 118 people to Turkey. For 10 days, the team — fighting cold, insecurity and human tragedy — rescued eight people and recovered 19 bodies from the ravaged buildings that collapsed in one of the deadliest quakes in modern history.
Korea was the first Asian country to dispatch a relief team to Turkey, and fifth in the world.
The Korean team, which mainly consisted of search and rescue personnel from the Army Special Warfare Command and the National Fire Agency alongside four rescue dogs, stationed its camp in Antakya, Hatay, one of the worst hit regions after the earthquake. The disaster claimed the lives of more than 22,000 people in the province alone. The earthquakes and aftershocks killed at least 45,968 people in Turkey and about 6,000 in Syria, according to officials there.
Recalling their 10 days in the land of despair, Kim Min-ji, 32, and Baek Joo-young, 27, both with the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA), said the situation was even more chaotic than they had imagined it would be.
“I was mentally prepared. But as we came closer to the disaster sites from the airport, the sounds of ambulances, car horns and screams became increasingly loud,” Kim said as she sat down with The Korea Herald for an interview.
“Due to the severe traffic congestion, it took us nearly three hours to get to the sites at a distance of 2 kilometers.”
The rescue crews could not afford to be disoriented as the critical hours immediately after the disaster were quickly coming to an end.
At 5 a.m. on Feb. 9, only a few hours after they landed in Gaziantep Airport, the Korean team began its rescue mission. Ninety minutes later, they found the first survivor, a 70-year-old man who was relatively in good health.
Nevertheless, Baek lamented that the teams felt they were losing time, as they couldn’t find any survivors on the second day.
“When we learned at the UN meeting that no other team had rescued any additional survivors, I felt a sense of despair because the critical ‘golden hour’ had passed,” Baek said.
“I knew that the survivors would not be able to endure much longer, especially since the weather was extremely cold.”
But a miracle did occur, she said, on the third day, as three additional survivors were found and rescued.
“However, as time passed and the number of survivors dwindled, we learned a crucial lesson on the importance of quick dispatch and response,” she added.
They came to miss the sounds of ambulance sirens and car horns on their first day, which reflected the large number of survivors.
“As time went on, it became increasingly quieter,” Kim said.
“The majority of the city’s victims had moved to safer areas, and only a few were still wandering around the buildings, searching for their loved ones who were still missing.”
“The quieter it became, the more I realized that the critical ‘golden hour’ had passed,” she added.
KOICA’s job as the Korea Disaster Relief Team’s (KDRT) secretariat was to take charge of the numerous necessary tasks to enable other workers to focus only on rescuing survivors in the field.
“We procured vehicles, arranged for interpreters and monitored the search and rescue operations,” she said.
“We also attended daily UCC (Urban Search and Rescue Coordination Cell) meetings to exchange information on rescue activities conducted by other countries and shared updates on the security situation.” UCC meetings were held among UN International Search and Rescue Advisory Group members on the scene.
In the Hatay region, around 20 countries sent relief teams to assist with the disaster response. In such situations where numerous countries conduct rescue activities in a chaotic environment, sharing information between teams is crucial.
Over the past month, more than 13,000 people from nearly 100 countries were involved in rescue operations in the provinces of Hatay and Kahramanmaras, which were severely damaged by the earthquakes.
“We needed to know the operational areas of each country and how many people were rescued in specific buildings so that we could determine where to focus our efforts,” she explained.
“It was also crucial to exchange information about the security situation in the area to ensure the safety of all the workers involved in the search and rescue operations.”
The rescue efforts of the KDRT in Turkey were significant as it was their first time successfully rescuing survivors. This occasion marked the ninth in which a Korean rescue team had been dispatched overseas since the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in China.
The KDRT was established in 2007 for dispatch to disaster-affected countries to provide lifesaving and medical support.
Kim and Baek said they had first volunteered to go to Turkey because they had wanted to console those who had lost everything they had. But it was the Turks who gave the Korean team everything it needed, including the strength to carry on the rescue mission.
The Korean team had brought a bag full of Turkish currency to purchase necessities during their time in Turkey. But they did not need to use any of it because the local people refused to accept any money from them. And it was these local residents who took to the disaster sites at dawn, when the Korean rescuers had no vehicles to transport neither themselves nor their equipment.
“Local volunteers generously provided their vehicles and drove all of our rescue workers, dogs and equipment to the sites,” Kim shared.
“They took care of daily necessities that we couldn’t bring, and supported us with all of our food, vehicle and fuel expenses.”
When the Turkish people saw the Korean team members wearing clothes with “KDRT” written on them, they showed their gratitude by hugging them, calling them “brother.” They placed their hands on their chests in expressions of gratitude. Some women even kissed the rescuers’ shoulders in gestures of appreciation.
“We had countless experiences where we could feel the gratitude of the people, and these became our motivation to keep going even when we were tired,” Kim shared. The team was deeply moved by the kindness and appreciation shown to them by the Turkish people.
As the team made their way through the disaster zone, family members would approach them and ask for their help in locating their loved ones who were still missing.
“When we informed them that we had to hurry because there were survivors that needed our help, they showed patience and encouraged us to move quickly,” she said. “I felt both grateful and sorry for their situation.”
Before departing from South Korea, Turkish Ambassador to Korea Salih Murat Tamer, saw the team off at Incheon Airport with the words, “Saving one person is like saving all of Turkey,” asking them to return safely.
“His words of encouragement gave us a lot of strength during our time in Turkey,” she said.
Staying in the disaster zone for 10 days was difficult for the Korean team as they faced security concerns, harsh weather conditions and sanitation issues.
Baek, one of the youngest members of the Korean team, admitted feeling frightened whenever she had to go to the bathroom outside in the dark guided only by a flashlight. She expressed concern that someone might be hiding nearby and potentially harm her or the team, given the unstable and uncertain situation.
The hardships she faced during her time in Turkey made her feel even more sorry about the suffering of the Turkish people.
“We were only there for 10 days, and even then, we faced so many challenges,” Baek said, choking up.
“It breaks my heart to think about how the local people had to endure such a difficult situation for such a long period of time.”
Survivors of the disaster were faced with constant risks of exposure to cold temperatures, hunger, disease and even looting amid the harsh and insecure environment, as much of the necessary infrastructure, such as the water supply, had been destroyed. In some areas, including Hatay, rescue operations conducted by German rescuers and Austrian troops had to be temporarily suspended due to disturbances caused by looters.
Kim and Baek emphasized the urgent need for sleeping bags and portable toilets, as the Turkish government works to build shelters for those affected by the disaster. They also mentioned the need for powdered milk for children, as well as sanitary products like napkins, tissues, disinfectant and wet wipes.
They also stressed the importance of cash donations to support the ongoing relief effort in Turkey. Given the rapidly evolving situation on the ground, cash donations provide the flexibility to purchase essential goods and supplies locally as needed.
“Sending cash would be the most helpful, as it can be used to buy things locally based on the situation at that time,” Baek stated.
“If cash is delivered through credible NGOs or UN organizations, various humanitarian aid organizations still working in the field will be able to respond quickly and effectively to needs in the field,” Baek said, adding that she had also donated through an international NGO after returning home.
After the first group of KDRT personnel returned home on Feb. 18, the government sent a second batch of 21 people, with a focus on medical staff, on Feb. 26. The decision to withdraw the first team was made after consulting the Turkish government.
The team still regretted not having been able to arrive sooner.
“If we had arrived an hour earlier, we could have saved more within the critical first 72 hours,” Baek said.
During their flight back to Korea, some members of the Korean rescue team were moved to tears while listening to messages of gratitude in Korean from the residents of Turkey whom they had worked alongside.
Baek said, “We shed tears because not only were we grateful for the messages, but also, we felt sorry for not being able to save more people and for leaving them behind to return to Korea. We had a mixture of these feelings.”