As time goes on and the death toll steadily rises in Turkey and Syria from the massive earthquakes a week ago — and with hopes for finding people alive amid the rubble all but gone — homeless, grief-stricken and, in many instances, injured survivors struggle mightily in frigid temperatures amid the total devastation all around them. And anger is mounting amid the despair.
When Zafer Mahmut Boncuk’s apartment building collapsed in the devastating earthquakes in southeastern Turkey and neighboring northern Syria, he discovered his 75-year-old mother was still alive – but pinned under the wreckage.
For hours, Boncuk frantically searched for someone in the ancient, devastated Turkish city of Antakya to help him free her. He was able to talk to her, hold her hand and give her water. Despite his pleas, however, no one came, and she died on Tuesday, the day after the quake.
Like many others in Turkey, his sorrow and disbelief have turned to rage over the sense that there has been an unfair and ineffective response to the historic disaster that has killed more than 33,000 people there and in Syria.
Boncuk directed his anger at President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, especially because she seemed so close to rescue but no one came. Her remains were finally removed Sunday, nearly a week after the building collapsed. His father’s body is still in the rubble.
“What would happen if it was your own mother, dear Recep Tayyip Erdogan? What happened to being a world leader? Where are you? Where?” he screamed.
“I gave her water to drink, I cleared her face of rubble. I told her that I would save her. But I failed,” said Boncuk, 60. “The last time we spoke, I asked if I should help her drink some water. She said no, so I rubbed some water on her lips. Ten minutes later, she died.”
He blamed “ignorance and lack of information and care – that’s why my mother died in front of my eyes.”
Many in Turkey express similar frustration that rescue operations have been painfully slow since the Feb. 6 quakes and that valuable time was lost during the narrow window for finding people alive.
Others, particularly in southern Hatay province near the Syrian border, say Erdogan’s government was late in delivering assistance to the hardest-hit region for what they suspect are both political and religious reasons.
In the southeastern town of Adiyaman, Elif Busra Ozturk waited outside the wreckage of a building on Saturday where her uncle and aunt were trapped and believed dead, and where the bodies of two of her cousins already had been found.
“For three days, I waited outside for help. No one came. There were so few rescue teams that they could only intervene in places they were sure there were people alive,” she said.
At the same complex, Abdullah Tas, 66, said he had been sleeping in a car near the building where his son, daughter-in-law and four grandchildren were buried. He said rescuers had first arrived four days after the earthquake struck. The Associated Press could not independently verify his claim.
“What good is that for the people under the debris?” he asked.
Onlookers stood behind police tape Saturday in Antakya as bulldozers clawed at a high-rise luxury apartment building that had toppled onto its side.
Over 1,000 residents had been in the 12-story building when the quake struck, according to relatives watching the recovery effort. They said hundreds were still inside but complained the effort to free them had been slow and not serious.
“This is an atrocity, I don’t know what to say,” said Bediha Kanmaz, 60. The bodies of her son and 7-month-old grandson had been pulled from the building – still locked in an embrace – but her daughter-in-law was still inside.
“We open body bags to see if they’re ours, we’re checking if they’re our children. We’re even checking the ones that are torn to pieces,” she said of herself and other grief-stricken relatives.
Kanmaz also blamed Turkey’s government for the slow response, and accused the national rescue service of failing to do enough to recover people alive.
When Zafer Mahmut Boncuk’s apartment building collapsed, she and others in Antakya expressed the belief that the presence of a large minority of Alevis – an Anatolian Islamic community that differs from Sunni and Shia Islam and Alawites in Syria – had made them a low priority for the government. Traditionally, few Alevis vote for Erdogan’s ruling party. There was no evidence, however, that the region was overlooked for sectarian reasons.
Erdogan said Wednesday that disaster efforts were continuing in all 10 affected provinces and dismissed allegations of no help from state institutions like the military as “lies, fake slander.”
But he has acknowledged shortcomings. Officials said rescue efforts in Hatay were initially complicated by the destruction of the local airport’s runway and bad road conditions.
Anger over the extent of the destruction, however, is not limited to individuals. Turkish authorities have been detaining or issuing detention warrants for dozens of people allegedly involved in the construction of buildings that collapsed, and the justice minister has vowed to punish those responsible.
In multiethnic southern Turkey, other tensions are rising. Some expressed frustration that Syrian refugees who fled to the region from their devastating civil war are burdening the sparse welfare system and competing for resources with Turkish people.
There were signs Saturday the tensions could be boiling over.
Two German aid groups and the Austrian Armed Forces temporarily interrupted their rescue work in the Hatay region citing fears for the safety of their staff. They resumed work after the Turkish army secured the area, the Austrian Defense Ministry spokesman tweeted.
“There is increasing tension between different groups in Turkey,” Lt. Col. Pierre Kugelweis of the Austrian Armed Forces told the APA news agency. “Shots have reportedly been fired.”
German news agency dpa reported that Steven Berger, chief of operations of the aid group I.S.A.R. Germany, said that “it can be seen that grief is slowly giving way to anger” in Turkey’s affected regions.
Civil war’s impact punctuating quakes response in Syria
After years of war, residents of areas in northwest Syria struck by the massive earthquakes are grappling with their new and worsening reality.
A week after the temblors, the United Nations has acknowledged an international failure to help Syrian quake victims.
In Atareb, a town that Syrian rebels still hold after years of fighting government troops, survivors dug through the debris of their homes Sunday, picking up the remnants of their shattered lives and looking for ways to heal after the latest in a series of humanitarian disasters to hit the war-battered area.
Excavators lifted rubble and residents with shovels and picks destroyed columns to even out a demolished building.
Dozens of newly displaced families gathered for hot meals from local volunteers and the local opposition-run government. A private citizen went tent to tent to give out wads of cash in a makeshift shelter – the equivalent of about $18 to each family.
Syrians were doing what they have honed over years of crises: relying on themselves to pick up the pieces and move on.
“We are licking our own wounds,” said Hekmat Hamoud, who had been displaced twice by Syria’s ongoing conflict before finding himself trapped for hours beneath rubble.
Syria’s northwestern rebel-held enclave, where over 4 million people for years have struggled to cope with ruthless airstrikes and rampant poverty, was hit hard by the Feb. 6 quakes.
Many in the area were already displaced from the ongoing conflict and live in crowded tent settlements or buildings weakened by past bombings. The quakes killed over 2,000 people in the enclave and displaced many more for a second time, forcing some to sleep under olive groves in the frigid winter weather.
“l lost everything,” said father of two Fares Ahmed Abdo, 25, who survived the quake. But his new home and body shop where he fixed motorcycles for a living were destroyed. Once again with barely any shelter and no power nor toilets, he, his wife, two boys and ill mother are crammed in a small tent.
“I am waiting for any help,” he said.
Visiting the Turkish-Syrian border Sunday, U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths acknowledged in a statement that Syrians have been left “looking for international help that hasn’t arrived.”
“We have so far failed the people in north-west Syria. They rightly feel abandoned,” he said. “My duty and our obligation is to correct this failure as fast as we can.”
Northwest Syria relies almost entirely on aid for survival, but post-quake international assistance has been slow to reach the area. The first U.N. convoy to reach the area from Turkey was on Thursday – three days after the earthquakes.
Before that, the only cargo coming across the Bab al-Hawa crossing on the Turkey-Syria border was a steady stream of bodies of earthquake victims coming home for burial – Syrian refugees who had fled the war in their country and settled in Turkey but perished in the quake.
The U.N. aid sent from Turkey to Syria is only authorized to enter via the Bab al-Hawa crossing, and logistics were complicated by pressure on the roads, many of them destroyed by the quake. While technically, international aid can also be sent from Syrian government-held areas to rebel-held areas in the northwest, that route brings its own set of hurdles and was at best a trickle.
Critics of the government of President Bashar Assad say aid funneled through government-held areas in Syria faces bureaucracy and the risk that authorities will misappropriate or divert the aid to support people close to the government.
A convoy carrying U.N. aid that was scheduled to cross Sunday into rebel-held Idlib from the government area was canceled after its entry was blocked by the the Qaida-affiliated rebel group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which dominates the area. An administrative arm of the group said in a statement declined to receive assistance from government areas.
Strips of northern Syria are held by a patchwork of sometimes-conflicting groups, further hindering aid deliveries. Turkish-backed rebels have blocked aid convoys from reaching earthquake victims that were sent by rival U.S.-backed Kurdish groups in neighboring areas.
“We are trying to tell everyone, put politics aside. This is the time to unite behind the common effort to support the Syrian people,” said Geir Pedersen, the U.N. special envoy for Syria who landed in Damascus on Sunday.
At the United Nations, U.S. envoy Linda Thomas-Greenfield called for an urgent U.S. Security Council vote to authorize the opening of additional cross-border passages into northwestern Syria. “People in the affected areas are counting on us,” she said in a statement. “They are appealing to our common humanity to help in their moment of need. We cannot let them down.”
While aid has been slow to reach the northwest, a number of countries that had cut ties with Damascus during Syria’s civil war have sent help to government areas. Arab countries including Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have stepped in. UAE’s foreign minister visited Damascus and met with Assad on Sunday.
Raed al-Saleh, the head of the White Helmets, a civil defense group operating in the rebel-held northwest, said Griffiths’ visit was “too little, too late.” He said calls for international assistance by local rescue teams went unheeded for days “and during this time, countless lives have been needlessly lost.”
Al-Saleh met with Griffiths to demand the opening of additional cross-border routes for aid to enter without waiting for authorization from the U.N. Security Council.
Abdel-Haseeb Abdel-Raheem sifted through the rubble of his aunt’s destroyed four-story building in the town of Atareb in opposition-run northern Aleppo. He had pulled the bodies of his aunt and her husband from beneath the rubble hours after the quake. Now he went back to find any valuables, using his hands and dipping his body inside the skeleton of the destroyed building to pull out blankets and pillows, as well as some clothes.
The 34-year-old said he had no illusion that humanitarian assistance will solve his problems.
“We have no hope anymore,” he said.