building that was destroyed

Life returns to Antakya, a city nearly leveled by earthquakes in southern Turkey

​​​​​​​Two months after devastating earthquakes killed more than 57,000 people in Turkey and Syria, survivors are living in tent camps and shipping containers outside the ruins of their former homes. As mobile businesses and streetside kebab shops return to the city of Antakya, some people are determined to stay in their hometown to grieve and rebuild. 

The World

On Feb. 6, Elçin Ezer’s apartment building collapsed in the massive, 7.8-magnitude earthquake that ripped across southern Turkey. 

She survived underneath the wreckage for four days, hugging her daughter as she died in her arms. Her mother and her son were in the next room, but she never heard their voices. She thinks they both died on impact. 

The shaking destroyed at least 55,000 buildings in Hatay, the province for which Antakya is the capital. Thousands died — including at least 700 in the collapse of a single luxury apartment block. Survivors emerged into a waking nightmare. 

man near building
Immediately after the earthquake, Ahmet Sarp used his mechanical lift to rescue survivors from upper-floor apartments in buildings that were still standing, but whose staircases had collapsed. Today, he uses it to help families salvage furniture from their damaged homes. Renting the machine and hiring workers can cost $500 per apartment.   Durrie Bouscaren/The World

Every day, Ezer walks to the pile of rubble that used to be the home she shared with her two children, who were 8 and 13. She’s haunted by the fact that rescue workers didn’t arrive at the site for days. Her ex-husband drove from Antalya to dig her and their children out, she said. 

“People ask me why I came back, and I don’t know what to tell them,” Ezer said. “My legs brought me here on their own.” 

Antakya today is a city of grief. At least 57,658 people have been confirmed dead in Turkey and northern Syria following the earthquakes, with many still missing. Though many residents have left the city to escape the risk of aftershocks, many remain to mourn, offer support and rebuild. 

“I feel better here,” Mehtap Yılmaz said. “Here, I lost so many friends, relatives — so many close friends. But we’re trying to stick together.” 

A dusty haze hovers above the ruins of buildings as crews tear down wrecked apartments. The Turkish government has promised to rebuild earthquake-damaged cities within the year. But with 1.5 million people across an 11-province disaster region now homeless, that seems impossible. 

woman making tea
Perihan Yüksek prepares tea in a makeshift tent that functions as a kitchen.  Durrie Bouscaren/The World

These days, almost everyone lives in tents or converted shipping containers — some in formal camps, others in public parks, or among the ruins of their homes and neighborhoods. Children can attend one hour of school per day in tent camps. 

In Antakya’s city center, there are creative solutions for small, daily comforts: Fresh baklava sold from a tent. A mobile ATM fashioned out of a van. A phone store set up in a shipping container. 

“When I see someone who I knew before the earthquake, it’s incredibly emotional … it’s like we didn’t understand the feeling of being sad,” said Onur Aşkar, a barber who offers shaves and haircuts underneath a tarp set up in a street median. 

Sami Joba chopped onions for kebabs, which he grills on a charcoal stove. He lost his restaurant in the earthquake. But his friend, who drives a school van, was also out of work. They converted the van into a setup for an outdoor kitchen, with the slogan that translates in English to: “If I don’t eat, I will die.”

people with a truck
Açeyla Açıkbaş, Ozhan Açıkbaş and Sami Joba run a mobile kebab shop in downtown Antakya.  Durrie Bouscaren/The World

One kebab, wrapped in a flatbread with onions and tomatoes, costs 50 Turkish lira — about $2.50. For families living in tent cities, it’s a rare chance to eat hot food that they’ve chosen for themselves. 

“It’s cheap, and it has a nice taste,” Joba said, without looking up from his work. “And — we don’t have anywhere to cook now.” 

For Selma Koşar, who waited with her 12-year-old son for their order, it was the first time they had had a kebab since the earthquake. The two are staying in a tent city nearby. 

“It’s always soup, beans and rice,” she said. “But it’s not for me — it’s for my son. We don’t have enough money.” 

After the earthquake, Koşar said, her son couldn’t speak or eat for several days. When she saw him get excited about having a kebab, she couldn’t say no. 

man with truck
Suleyman, a truck driver, lost his family in the earthquake. He has remained in Antakya to help families salvage furniture from their wrecked homes.  Durrie Bouscaren/The World

Throughout the daylight hours, debris is cleared and packed onto trucks, which are driven out of town and dumped along the highway. Tall mechanical lifts, which spent the first weeks of the disaster pressed into service to rescue survivors, now line up to the rickety husks of apartment buildings as people salvage furniture from their damaged homes.

Climbing up into these apartment blocks is dangerous work, but it pays well.

Anas Saghir, a Syrian refugee, said that he sent his wife and children to Konya, a city that sits further away from earthquake fault lines. But he stayed behind to work. 

Every day, he said, his kids cry on the phone, asking him to come for them. They were traumatized by the frantic escape from their home in the early morning hours; the staircase of the building collapsed as the family rushed downstairs, hitting Saghir in the head. 

“They’re always saying ‘baba, baba,’” he said, fighting back tears. 

worker asleep
A worker sleeps during a short break while transporting onions in Hatay.  Durrie Bouscaren/The World

At night, he sleeps in a tent in the ruins of a baklava shop. He’s just grateful they all survived. 

“Thank God for everything,” he sniffed. 

Other families have moved to the hills where villages ring the outskirts of old Antakya. 

Perihan Yüksek used a match to light a propane stove in a makeshift tent that serves as a kitchen. She came to the village after the earthquakes to be with her cousin, Bedia Yüksek, who’s mourning the loss of her daughter, Huliya.

woman holding out photo
Bedia Yüksek holds a photograph of her daughter, Huliya, who died in Antakya during the earthquakes on Feb. 6.  Durrie Bouscaren/The World

“Whenever I’m in the tent, it feels like the pain is going to kill me,” Bedia Yüksek said. 

Her daughter was sleeping in her apartment in Antakya when the earthquake hit. Perihan Yüksek’s son, who was also living nearby,  survived, but lost both of his legs.

The Yükseks’ home is still standing, but appears as if it could collapse at any moment. Bedia Yüksek and her husband set up donated tents in the garden and wired them with electricity. On a recent visit, several mattresses have been prepared for relatives who will visit in the coming days. A photograph of their late daughter sits next to the television, watching over them. 

“Life continues, because it has to,” Perihan Yüksek said. “Life goes on until God takes it from us.”

a man and woman inside a damaged house
Bedia Yüksek and Mehmet Yüksek’s home remained standing after the earthquakes, but is no longer safe to live in. They’ve been staying in tents ever since.   Durrie Bouscaren/The World

Days are spent washing clothes by hand, cooking outdoors and making improvements to the tents so they stay dry in the rain. They eat eggs from their chickens and oranges from their garden. But the Yükseks are determined to stay until their home is rebuilt. 

It’s like going back in time, Perihan Yüksek mused over a glass of tea. As she finished her cup, she flung the extra out onto the dirt floor.  

“I guess that’s something,” she said. “If you don’t have a living room, there’s nothing to clean.” 

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