Early this year​ , Samer Fa’our noticed that small earthquakes were rattling his building in the southern Turkish city of Antakya with increased frequency. The tremors were mild, and his wife and children often slept through them, but they made him feel uneasy. Like millions of Syrians, he had lived through years of civil war: Syrian jets and helicopters had dropped bombs on his rebel-controlled town, and artillery and rockets had pounded the streets near his house. During these attacks the earth would tremble and windows shatter. A building, sometimes two, would collapse, and in the cloud of dust and debris, he and his neighbours would work with their bare hands to pull survivors from the rubble.

He and his extended family eventually fled Syria and found a new home in Antakya, a city of mixed ethnicities and religions, where Arabic was as common in the streets as Turkish and Kurdish. The Fa’our clan opened shops, a gym and a couple of supermarkets, contributing to Antakya’s economic boom and defying the stereotype of the ‘parasitic’ refugee perpetuated by the right-wing Turkish media. Eventually, they bought apartments in new residential blocks on the eastern side of the River Orontes. Once, this neighbourhood had been dominated by two or three-storey houses with generous gardens, but most of them had been demolished and multi-storey residential and commercial buildings erected in their place.

At the end of January, Samer decided that the whole family should sleep in the same room. He laid out mattresses on the floor for his two boys, while his baby daughter slept between him and his wife. He told them that if anything happened, it would happen to the whole family. At 4 a.m. on 6 February, he woke to feel his bed shuddering. He sat upright, waited for the tremors to pass, and was glad the others were still asleep. But the tremors became stronger, and the room began to shake; he could hear things breaking and the walls cracking. He wrapped the baby in a blanket and ran with her out of the room, while his wife, now very much awake, extracted the boys, who had just avoided being crushed by a falling wardrobe. When Samer opened the apartment door, he heard a howling noise and the stairwell collapsed in front of him. Something struck him on the head. He fell, still holding the baby, and lost consciousness.

An earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale had hit southern Turkey, with an epicentre outside Gaziantep near the Syrian border. It was followed nine hours later by a 7.5 magnitude earthquake whose epicentre was near the city of Kahramanmaraş, about a hundred kilometres north. In the days and weeks that followed, hundreds of aftershocks hit the region. Cities, towns and villages between Antakya and Aleppo lay in ruins. In Turkey more than fifty thousand people were killed, in Syria eight thousand, and an estimated 1.5 million people lost their homes. It was the deadliest natural disaster in modern Turkish history.

Turkey’s seismic activity stems from the movement of three major tectonic plates. The Arabian and African plates in the south converge with the Anatolian plate in the north, causing Turkey’s land mass to move slowly to the west. The movement takes place along multiple fault lines. The North Anatolian Fault, which runs east-west along the shore of the Black Sea, has ruptured several times over the past century. In 1939 the Erzincan earthquake killed 33,000 people, and in 1999 an earthquake around Izmit, by the Sea of Marmara, killed 17,000. It was in the aftermath of the latter, when the slow response of the Turkish army and the ruling party at the time led to wide-spread resignations, that Erdoğan’s AKP came to come to power.

The epicentre of February’s 7.8 magnitude earthquake was a triple junction between the Arabian, African and Anatolian plates. A gorge two hundred metres wide and thirty metres deep opened up in the middle of an olive grove in Hatay province. A local farmer gave one interview after another to TV cameras, while people took selfies at the chasm’s edge.

A week after the earthquakes I drove to Antakya, passing half-destroyed houses with rudimentary blue tarpaulin shelters in the fields beside them. People gathered around stoves whose tin chimneys spouted thick black smoke. Piles of clothing and shoes donated by people from all over Turkey lay by the side of the road alongside heaps of empty plastic bottles and styrofoam lunch boxes, like breadcrumbs leading to the disaster zone.

Closer to the city, villages and orchards gave way to residential suburbs, most of them erected over the past few years to cater for the new population that had moved to the cities. A few of these buildings were still standing, framing long stretches of destruction. Excavators and bulldozers dug through the rubble. Tired rescuers and medics sat on the kerb drinking tea, their faces caked in cement dust. A team of firemen from the city of Konya were searching for survivors in what remained of a multi-storey building. One of them was in a basket at the end of an extendable ladder, looking through windows and damaged walls, calling out to anyone still inside.

The building, with its rounded corner balconies painted brown, was a standard example of the new architectural style that can be seen everywhere from Erbil to Istanbul. It had cracked down the middle. One half, still intact, had fallen to the left, knocking over the building next door. At the back, where the caved-in slabs of the first two floors formed a zigzag of triangles, the building’s doorman, Bilal Çatmak, and two of his relatives were looking into the gaps, searching for his missing wife and younger son.

Çatmak said he hadn’t been in the building when the earthquake hit. Three days later, rescuers had pulled his 13-year-old boy out of the rubble. He added, without conviction, that he hoped his wife and his other son were still alive too. He and his family had moved to Antakya from the countryside a few years ago and lived in a small apartment near the entrance to the block. He said his son had been in shock since he was rescued, barely eating and unable to speak.

In the centre of Antakya, buildings had been destroyed in all manner of ways. There were those whose load-bearing columns buckled, causing the floor slabs to fall on top of one another. Others tumbled forwards or sideways. Many just collapsed into vast piles of debris, with only the odd piece of furniture sticking out of the rubble indicating that people had once lived there. Some remained standing, but their façades had gone, exposing kitchens where jars of pickles and olives still sat on the shelves, living rooms that had spilled their sofas and cabinets onto the cars parked below. Picture frames hung crookedly on the walls, and curtains fluttered in the air. Roads not blocked by rubble were clogged by lines of flatbed trucks ferrying construction equipment, fire engines, armoured military vehicles and ambulances sounding their sirens – although the last were outnumbered by those transporting the dead.

The streets were full of activity, and there was the sound of drills, shovels and pickaxes. Bulldozers pushed aside concrete slabs and steel reinforcing bars, which fell with a roaring whoosh, while the machines’ tracks crunched on the rubble and glass. Generators, small and large, hummed everywhere. You could hear a babel of languages: Turkish, Russian, Spanish, Greek, German, Arabic, Bosnian and – above all – heavily accented English, as rescue teams from all over the world worked frantically to free those who were still trapped.

Antakya, or Antioch, has been destroyed many times. It was one of the most important ancient cities to straddle the east-west trade routes from Persia to the Mediterranean, and the north-south routes connecting Constantinople to the cities of Syria and the Levant. It was a centre of the early Christian church. An earthquake in the middle of the sixth century destroyed much of the city, and like its sister cities of Aleppo and Mosul it has seen its share of wars and invasions, from the Persians, Byzantines, Arabs, Seljuk Turks, Crusaders, Mamluks, Ottomans and, finally, the French.

Most of Antakya’s architectural heritage has been demolished, or is buried deep under the modern city. Its historic areas largely date back to the Ottoman period, when it was little more than a village, or to the colonial architecture of the French mandate. At first sight, much of Antakya now resembled post-US invasion Mosul in its level of destruction, but I soon realised that things were much worse. In war, even when a city has been pulverised by aerial bombardment, skeletons of buildings stay standing. People can still live in buildings after a rocket has destroyed a couple of floors. But the scale of the destruction in Antakya was beyond the capacity of any murderous militia or general. The city was close to having been obliterated.

A team of rescuers from Cancún gathered in the shade of some trees. At their feet, a tangle of cables connected drills and jackhammers to a generator. In front of them, a building had collapsed. On top of everything, the building’s flat roof rested, with rusting satellite dishes still attached. The Mexicans, assisted by miners from the Turkish town of Zonguldak (a city with its own history of disasters: in 2010 an explosion there killed thirty miners), had burrowed a path through the rubble. The night before, they had pulled out an elderly man and his wife who had been trapped for more than 140 hours, and now they were looking for the couple’s older son. The other son and his cousin, who were in Istanbul when the earthquake hit, were watching the operation, both exhausted after many sleepless nights. ‘Everyone had given up hope,’ the son said, ‘but the Mexicans persisted, and now my parents are alive thanks to them.’

A whistle went up. ‘¡Silencio!’ one of the Mexicans shouted. Rescuers, police officers and bystanders fell silent and then the bulldozers and excavators turned off their engines, stopping their buckets mid-motion. The generators puttered into silence and trucks and cars came to halt. Only the sound of rustling leaves could be heard. Minutes passed. The rescuers tried to detect any sounds coming from below, but there was nothing. A few minutes later, another whistle went up, and the noise resumed.

Five men in hi-vis vests stumbled out of a building in a side street, carrying a corpse wrapped in a dusty blanket. They laid it on the kerb in front of the building before taking a few steps back and lighting cigarettes. A group of men formed a circle around the blanket. One of them, the youngest, unwrapped one end of the blanket. The others leaned over his shoulder, to see a face that had become crimson dark. From the other end of the blanket, two dusty feet stuck out.

‘Ya Allah, is he Fawaz?’ the young man asked. ‘I can’t recognise the face from all the bruises, but it must be him. His wife said he was there.’

‘You don’t know that for sure,’ another man said. ‘Search his pockets; maybe he has an ID card.’ But the pockets were empty.

‘Call his wife and ask her what he was wearing,’ another said. The young man covered the corpse’s face with the blanket again and went to make the call.

On the other side of the street, an older man sat on the pavement, waiting to find out whether the corpse was Fawaz, his son-in-law, and for news of Fawaz’s twin boys, his grandchildren. Fawaz and his family were Syrians who had fled the town of Jisr ash-Shughur, the scene of one of the earliest massacres in the civil war. The grandfather said that when the earthquake struck, his daughter, Fawaz, and their youngest son ran out of the building, only to realise that the other boys were still inside. So Fawaz ran back to get them, but part of the building collapsed, and they were trapped. Fawaz rang his wife and said he and the boys were alive but couldn’t get out. Five days later, one of the neighbours managed to climb into the wreckage and shot a video on his phone showing the two boys lying under their father’s body. They could barely be distinguished from the debris around them. Only one of the boys was still moving: Fawaz and the other child were dead. The young man came back and said that according to his wife Fawaz had been wearing a red vest. The corpse belonged to someone else.

A debate followed on how to get into the building to retrieve the bodies of Fawaz and the twins. The rescuers wanted the Syrians to help, but they were afraid to go inside, lest they were mistaken for looters – rumours were spreading that the army and police were arresting their compatriots. While they argued, a man in sunglasses arrived on the scene. He stood there staring at what remained of the apartment block, pointed at a jumble of twisted steel bars that sprouted from the top of the broken columns and said the building used to be five storeys high, not three. The bottom two floors had been jammed underground.

‘We predicted this like you predict the weather,’ he told me. ‘You know a storm is coming, and so you know that an earthquake was coming. We told the people living here that this building was unsafe and that they should leave. But they didn’t have anywhere else to go.’ He said he worked for the municipal authority. They had inspected this building many times. ‘It was like telling someone hungry you can’t eat this bad food, but they have no choice. If they don’t eat, they starve. They had no choice.’ He said all the residents were poor, both Syrians and Turks. The only thing the municipality could do was provide occasional aid. ‘This disaster is not the fault of those poor people. This is the fault of the government. The government should protect its people; instead, the government buys weapons, builds palaces, leaving the poor people behind.’

A lot has been said about the shoddy construction practices that undoubtedly contributed to the high number of casualties, but the main issue for the families of the earthquake victims was the state’s chaotic initial response. In the aftermath of an earthquake, as with any natural disaster, the first 24 hours are crucial to saving those who are still alive. But in Antakya and elsewhere the state was nowhere to be seen. People dug with their hands, broke into supermarkets to get water and supplies, and slept in their cars or in the open air. Mobile networks failed. Aid and rescuers only began trickling in three days after the quakes, a major embarrassment for a country that considers its expertise in disaster relief a significant component of its foreign diplomacy.

Part of the reason was that many of the members of fire departments and army and police units in the affected areas were themselves trapped under the rubble or trying to rescue their own families. This is where Turkey’s disaster management agency, AFAD, could have played a crucial role. But a combination of corruption and extreme centralisation, with AFAD made to answer directly to the ministry of the interior and staffed with political appointees, meant that the agency was ineffective. Where state institutions failed, locals filled the gap. In Istanbul and other cities donation centres were set up within hours of the disaster. People brought boxes of clothes, baby formula, tinned food, medicines and sanitary products. NGOs built tents, companies donated construction equipment and volunteers from all over Turkey and beyond headed to the earthquake zone.

I went to Kahramanmaraş, close to the epicentre of the second earthquake, where all the buildings on one side of the main boulevard had collapsed. Three large excavators lay idle as a group of rescuers from Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, the Ankara fire department and the Turkish military, along with medics and a very enthusiastic Turkish-German volunteer, gathered around a narrow opening at the bottom of a pit, where it was suspected that three missing sisters might still be trapped.

Earlier that day, thermal cameras had indicated that there were signs of life under the rubble. The Kyrgyz team brought in a rescue dog, a black spaniel, which quickly disappeared through the opening but couldn’t get any further. ‘He’s too fat,’ the Kyrgyz handler said. Her team members fetched a smaller dog. It made its way in and emerged after a while whimpering. The handler believed it had found something. Hours passed, and the teams worked painstakingly to clear a path through the debris. Rescuers formed a human chain to remove the contents of what must have been an engineering office: theodolite stands, thick black folders, piles of paperwork, a swivel chair and parts of a cabinet. A long tube was passed through the tunnel and rigged to an air pump. At one point, jackhammers and drills were used, but the teams feared they might cause the chamber inside to collapse. Throughout, the Turkish-German volunteer ran up and down, shouted and gesticulated. Restlessly, he worked even when others stopped for a break. Tempers frayed. Tensions rose between the Ankara fire brigade chief and the Kyrgyz team leader as they argued about how many men should be in the tunnel at any one time. Arguments went back and forth in Russian, Turkish and English until the Turkish army officer inserted himself between the two men and put a stop to it.

A crowd of TV camera crews surrounded the site. Every hour, journalists provided live updates to a nation desperate for at least one good news story. Around 3 p.m., a soldier crawled into the tunnel to install seismic sensors. The firefighter chief raised a hand, commanding silence. Police officers stopped the traffic in the nearby streets, and rescuers in neighbouring sites shut down their equipment and waited. A soldier shouted through a megaphone into the tunnel: ‘If you can hear me, please tap three times.’ Nobody spoke as another soldier wearing headphones tweaked the dials on a control panel. ‘If you can hear me, please tap three times,’ the soldier repeated. Everyone held their breath. A mobile phone rang and was quickly silenced.

Slowly, the soldier with the headphones raised an arm and gave a thumbs-up. Rescuers and soldiers clapped one another on the back and shook hands. The army officer congratulated the fire brigade chief. The Turkish-German volunteer hugged everyone around him; nobody could be happier. The digging picked up pace, and the medics lined up their stretchers. The sun began to dip behind a hill, and it grew colder. There was still no sign of the sisters. The thermal cameras no longer detected any sign of life. The seismic detection team returned, and this time it was the Turkish-German volunteer who carried the sensors into the tunnel. He came out covered in dust and repeated the line through the megaphone, again and again. No taps came in return.

Night fell, the temperature dropped below zero, and fires were lit. The firefighters began packing away their equipment, the medics took away their stretchers and the rescue teams drifted away after more than 24 hours sifting through the rubble. The big excavators, under floodlights, resumed their work, indicating that the rescue operation had come to an end. The steel bars which had failed to reinforce the building squealed and resisted as the machines ripped them apart. At 4 a.m. the bodies of the three sisters were retrieved.

By the second week, foreign rescue teams began to leave the country, and the search for survivors gave way to the task of bringing out the bodies. Among those looking was Samer Fa’our. He and a few of his relatives sat huddled on a broken sofa, waiting for the remains of their family members, 27 of them in total, to be pulled out of the rubble. After he lost consciousness near his apartment’s entrance, Samer had woken up to find his wife dragging him and the baby back into the bedroom. It was dark, dust filled the air, but he could see that the two boys were alive – one of them had slept through everything, even the falling wardrobe. They all climbed out through the bedroom window into the street. They stood under the heavy rain, and Samer looked back at his building with bewilderment. He wondered how his second-floor apartment was now at street level. His sister and her seven children lived on the ground floor. He tried to reach them, but they had been crushed under the weight of his own apartment. He rushed towards his brother’s house in the next street, but in the darkness and rain, and with the howling of people crying for help, he lost his way in this unfamiliar landscape, where nearly every new multi-storey building had collapsed.

He finally found his bearings and reached his brother’s building. A couple of people were already trying to clear the rubble. His brother was trapped in the living room and cried out for help. ‘I told him I am here to free you,’ Samer said. ‘Hold on.’ After four hours they had dug out enough of the debris to create a window, but his brother was badly injured, sitting in a pool of blood. He died soon afterwards. His sister-in-law and her baby were still alive. For days they pushed food, water and milk through the opening they had made, and waited for rescuers to bring equipment. Five days later they got her and the baby out alive. ‘I have seen war. War is much easier. One building falls and we all rush to help. But here –’ Samer said, gesturing at the rubble, as if there was no other story to tell.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences