Antakya’s once busy main road is now a single street lined with piles of rubble several storeys high. Survivors scour the area to salvage what little they have left while cars lie crushed under the rubble.
From the moment I arrived in Turkey last Sunday following the massive earthquakes that devastated parts of the country, it was clear that it was going to be a trip I would not forget any time soon.
I had travelled there at the invitation of SOS Malta (Solidarity Overseas Service Malta), an NGO that works to provide humanitarian assistance to communities abroad struggling in the face of wars or natural disasters.
Over the month leading up to our visit, the organisation had been busy collecting donations to set up 50 tents in Reyhanlı, a town in Hatay province in the southernmost part of the country.
The tents had now arrived and were ready to be set up, with SOS Malta’s David Grech having headed there to oversee their construction.
A lot of the buildings in Reyhanlı, only three miles from the Syrian border, are still standing but are badly damaged.
Still, walking around what is left of it, the scale of the damage was at times overwhelming.
Overcrowded tents now fill the streets, the only shelter left to the hundreds of families who have had to abandon their homes due to damage or destruction. Though many houses are still standing, residents are too scared to go inside for fear of another earthquake or of the building suddenly collapsing.
Their fears are justified, with a 4.4 magnitude tremor briefly shaking our hotel on the second day of our stay. Following the 7.8 magnitude event on February 6, numerous other aftershocks have rocked the country, with tremors felt as recently as last week.
The morning after arriving, we travelled to the site to see the tents starting to be set up.
Turkish and Syrian volunteers had worked to clear the area of rubble before the tents’ arrival and were busy setting up steel supports, stretching canvas over metal frames and securing them against the elements.
While the town is already host to many tents, the quality of those supplied by SOS Malta are a significant improvement. They are large, waterproof and will soon have electricity, toilets and showers installed.
Importantly, they will also accommodate only one family at a time, providing dignity and privacy to those sorely in need of both. In addition to housing families, the site will soon also provide a school and a mosque.
During our visit, families approached us, thanking David, SOS Malta and the Maltese people through an interpreter assigned to us. It was an emotional moment, with those told they would be assigned a tent openly moved to tears at the news.
The scale of the damage was at times overwhelming
As the first of the tents were being erected, we decided to head to the nearby town of Antakya, an area at the epicentre of the quake and one we had been told had suffered considerable damage.
Household items and personal belongings, mangled among the piles of rubble and dust, are now the only remaining evidence that these were once homes. These buildings didn’t just collapse; they disintegrated.
Some of the remaining high-rise apartment blocks are leaning to one side, while cracks as wide as a couple of inches in places run through entire buildings. The scale of the devastation is unprecedented, with no breathing space left in the collapsed buildings for anything to survive.
Some roads are entirely destroyed, with others having sunk by up to 10 metres. Military personnel patrol the remaining roads, keeping the peace and discouraging looting, while aid workers continue to look for survivors in need of help.
It is a shocking scene, and one that will remain in the minds of those affected for the rest of their lives.
Despite the scale of the destruction in Hatay province, however, people’s daily lives continue. Children play in the streets, while adults set about trying to rebuild their lives.
Though food remains available, having enough money to buy goods remains a difficulty for many, though SOS Malta plans to soon start providing food at its site in Reyhanlı.
We left Turkey on Thursday, though my thoughts often return to my experiences there.
During my visit to the country, I was struck not only by the scale of the devastation but also by the power of simple acts of kindness. These acts reveal some of the best qualities in all of us: our openness, generosity of spirit and willingness to help others in need.
Seeing the work of SOS Malta made me proud to be Maltese but also not to take anything for granted.
Returning to my family, friends and home reinforced the fact that these things are not a given for everyone in the world, and that we should be grateful for what we have while seeking to help others.
We may be a small island, but, as one survivor told me, we are capable of great things.
Matthew Mirabelli was speaking to James Cummings.
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