February 17, 2023
KAHRAMANMARAS, Turkey – For several days, aid worker Hasan Abut retrieved one corpse after another from the rubble following last week’s devastating earthquake in the Turkish city of Kahramanmaras.
Then, last Saturday, as he and his colleagues were working at an apartment building, they heard a cry from the opposite side of the site. Rushing to where the sound was coming from, they dug frantically and uncovered a girl’s hand, then her face.
Even though the rescuers were able to save only her and not her family members, it gave them hope that more survivors could be found.
Mr Hasan is an international coordinator at Turkey-based aid organisation Hayrat Aid.
Singapore non-governmental organisation Mercy Relief is in Turkey working with Hayrat Aid to buy and distribute items like hot meals and blankets for survivors.
The Straits Times is accompanying Mercy Relief on this trip.
Speaking to ST on Thursday in a van en route to Kahramanmaras from Adana, Mr Hasan said saving the girl – 18-year-old Aisha – was the happiest moment of his life.
He said: “To retrieve the dead bodies from the rubble, it felt so bad, psychologically and physically. You cannot think and act normally. But when you find someone who is alive, then you become happy. That happiness gives you hope, strong hope.”
On Feb 6, Mr Hasan was awoken at 4.30am with news of the earthquake and rushed to an airport in Istanbul within an hour. He met a team from Hayrat Aid and Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority and flew to Adana before heading to Kahramanmaras.
Later that day, his team rescued two people from the rubble.
On Tuesday, the World Health Organisation said the earthquake, which also killed thousands in Syria, constituted the worst natural disaster in 100 years in the Europe region. The 7.8-magnitude quake, followed by a major aftershock, has killed more than 40,000 people, and caused 25,000 buildings to collapse in Turkey.
Last Saturday, after hearing Aisha’s cry for help, Mr Hasan and his team stopped work and went towards the sound. After asking if there was anyone underneath them, they heard a female voice pleading for help.
The rescuers used drills and powered through concrete slabs to reach the stricken girl. After an hour, her hands became visible. Minutes later, they saw her face.
Said Mr Hasan: “When she saw us, she cried. She said, ‘It is the sixth day of the earthquake. I’m so thirsty. Please give me water.’”
After Mr Hasan gave her some water, Aisha held onto his hand as the rescuers continued working.
She asked him to keep talking to her, saying his voice sounded like her father’s. After two more hours, Aisha was rescued.
Mr Hasan said she did not suffer any major injuries. But he said she had lost her entire family, including her parents and brother.
He added that identifying bodies has been an issue for family members who are desperately searching for loved ones as the death count mounts.
He said: “Some of the bodies, you cannot recognise them.
“Because they spent lots of time under the rubble, their skin colour has changed and some have facial injuries,” he added.
As bodies are added to the death toll only after they have been identified, Mr Hasan said the number should be higher than what has been reported.
But he said he and his colleagues are not giving up on finding more survivors.
He said: “We are getting a lot of people from the rubble – we rescued some yesterday. Today, inshallah (God willing), we will also be able to save more.”