Hope amid the earthquake rubble in Türkiye

On the ground with an Aussie ministry worker

Amazing stories of live rescues from the earthquake zone in Türkiye continue, with an Australian ministry worker witnessing a 32-year-old man being pulled alive from a building in Antakya on Saturday.

Antakya is the ancient capital of Hatay Province south-eastern Türkiye, the region hit hardest by the worst earthquake the country in nearly a century, which also struck northern Syria last Monday.

“Yesterday we saw a person rescued alive on the sixth day after the quake – 128 hours after he was buried,” said Matt (not his real name) who drove to Antakya on Thursday and has connected with an aid team led by an American with links to churches in the US.

“We saw a team running, saying there is someone alive. They were asking a motorcyclist if they could use their bike and so I called out to them that we had a minivan, which they all piled into. We drove in the opposite direction to the traffic and we had people walking ahead of us parting the way. We drove them to this location where there was already a team there working on it.

“It was a couple, a man and his wife, who was pregnant. The man, 32 years old, was brought out alive but his wife passed away, and it’s likely her baby was lost.”

Matt and his team watched as the man was pulled out of the rubble, wrapped in a foil blanket and put on a stretcher, and saw the rescue workers put the wife in an orange body bag as people in the street wailed in grief.

Machinery operators attempt to clear some of the rubble

Machinery operators attempt to clear some of the rubble. Image supplied

Afterwards, Matt was able to have a gospel talk in Turkish with a volunteer paramedic from Istanbul, who was part of a team wandering around the streets and listening for any signs of life.

“One of the guys said, ‘I need to get back to Adana,’ so we gave him a lift. I had a nap because I was really tired and then we talked. I said, ‘All of these earthquakes make me think about death. Does it make you think about death?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I asked him, ‘What do you think happens after death?’ He said, ‘Then comes judgement day and our deeds will be weighed.’ I asked, ‘How do you feel about that?’ He said, ‘It’s scary.’ I said, ‘Look, I understand you believe this but I believe we don’t have to be afraid of judgement.’”

When this Muslim paramedic asked Matt how he knew that God loves us, Matt quoted Romans 5:8: “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Matt gave the man a Bible and they read together Isaiah 53, Romans 5 and Matthew 7: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”

Matt encouraged the man to ask God these questions, to seek him out and God would reveal himself.

“Today he sent me a message saying I will read and will write to you from time to time about the things that I am thinking about.”

“It was chaos, many corpses in body bags lying on the street with family sitting next to them …” – Matt

There are six members of Matt’s team including an American leader and two English-speaking Turks. The plan was to meet an American disaster response team that was flying into Adana Airport and work together for six days.

After arriving to chaotic scenes in Antakya last Thursday, Matt and his team have been able to work with Turkish churches in the distribution of aid.

On their way, they heard from a friend that a whole family was trapped under rubble in Antalya. Even though they were making noise, there was no rescue crew to help them.

“Thursday, the evening we arrived, was hectic. There was lots and lots of traffic on the road, ambulances coming up the middle between the cars and people trying to follow them behind. It was bumper to bumper and moving slowly. There were lots of trucks and lots of aid coming in, as well as people who had come to find their missing loved ones.

“At one point in the road, there was a side road that we took that saved a lot of time. The other van in our party was two cars in front of us. Where the side road joined the main road, they were able to get through. But as soon as they got through, the police closed the entrance to the highway towards Antakya and forced us to go back, separating us from the other vehicle.

“Along this road heading away from Antakya, there was a space in the median strip and there was a policeman guarding it. We stopped and I pleaded with him to let us through because we had been separated, and we were there to be delivering aid to people in need. He let us through amidst the angry shouts of others’ complaints who were forced to continue going [away from Antakya]. I believe that was a work of God.”

A car navigates the earthquake zone in Türkiye

A car navigates the earthquake zone in Türkiye. Image supplied

As Matt arrived in Antakya, it was almost impossible to get internet or to call the others on their team.

“The other vehicle headed straight to the point that we were given where our friend’s friend was trapped underneath the rubble. They arrived there, but there were so many people milling around that it was impossible to find our contact, especially since cell phones and messages were working very poorly; and they couldn’t connect with the contact.

“Apparently, it was chaos, many corpses in body bags lying on the street with family sitting next to them, waiting for others in their family to be found. During that time, I heard from the contact that a professional team had arrived with construction machinery – cranes and excavators – to work on that building.

“On the way into the city, we saw two children covering a grave in their own backyard. This was very sad to see,” he said.

There is still an urgent need to get essential supplies to outlying villages.

Friday was a long and tiring day, making contact with different churches and with a foreign American team who had come to consider the opportunities for giving out food aid.

“These rendezvous were slow. During one of them, we were next to a collapsed building that construction crews had been working on. We watched as they dug, and helped move the corpses of three of the victims who seemed as though they had been crushed and killed in the initial quake,” he said.

“One of the churches here has a huge distribution centre that they rented and stocked immediately following the quake. People are coming there to receive aid, as well as taking it to the surrounding villages in need.”

A couple of men and their sons collect supplies

A couple of men and their sons collect supplies at the large distribution centre at a church in Kurtuluş, Türkiye. Image supplied

Matt said that a lot of people in Hatay have been evacuated to family members in other parts of the country. But there is still an urgent need to get essential supplies to outlying villages.

“Today [Sunday] we plan to go to Adana and buy some food and distribute it. It seems people have warm clothes but outlying villages are cut off from supply and don’t have basic needs such as lentils and rice and other food supplies, so we’re contributing with that.

“In Adana there’s plenty of food and fuel, but the challenge has been getting to where it’s needed.

“Yesterday we went to a place called Samandağı and along the road, a lot of people crowded around the van asking for rice and lentils. We gave out all of our bread, but they wanted things to cook with, supplies have not been getting through to these places, and they are desperate for whatever we have.

“We went out to some villages last night and gave out some preserved and canned foods. And some beanies – we bought 50 balaclavas, which are good for keeping warm.”

“Long term, we want to be here working with people and meeting their spiritual needs … and just comforting them and listening to their stories.” – Matt

On Sunday the team went into a store looking for candles and tarps – candles are important since there is no electricity.

“We asked for a discount since we were buying in bulk. When they asked what we wanted to do with them we said ‘We are taking them to the earthquake areas.’ The tarps cost around $50-80 each and we wanted seven of them and 200 candles. The total cost was around $600 which is 1.5 months minimum wage in Türkiye, but the man said we will take it all for no cost. ‘You have gone to such lengths to help these people, this was the least we could do.’ Later one of the workers said that the store owner was renting the place and was not rich, but gave despite this.”

Matt explained that many people are still living outside because they are scared of another aftershock, as happened after the devastating earthquake in Nepal in 2015.

“People are still afraid something similar could happen, so they’re sleeping outside, not in their houses; they’re generally in their cars, but they have no fuel so they can’t use the heater. Even if they can use the heater, it’s still cold. They’ve been looking for tents. They want big tents where they can put a wood heater inside to heat it, which are difficult to source. I don’t think that’s necessarily something we can provide, but maybe people like us could deliver these tents with enough funding and connections.”

Matt said they have to constantly assess what are the most urgent needs as they are continually changing. Many of the affected cities are going to be completely evacuated, and there is a lot of aid and funding coming through.

“I’m thinking long term, we want to be here working with people and meeting their spiritual needs and talking to people about life after death and the hope that they have. And just comforting them and listening to their stories of what they went through,” he said.

Speaking of his conversation with the Turkish paramedic, he said: “When you work together in something like this it really builds connections and camaraderie and trust because you are both working to save lives and do good.

“So these sorts of opportunities are plentiful and our team as a whole in Türkiye are thinking what long-term ministry opportunities are here that are worth investing in, that we could see fruit from.”

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Türkiye & Syria: Earthquake Emergency Response

Bible Society Australia has launched an emergency appeal to help victims of the Türkiye and Syria earthquake, in response to an urgent request from the Bible Society in Türkiye.

The goal of this appeal is to respond to urgent needs – material, emotional and mental.

The Bible Society in Türkiye will collaborate with the local churches to distribute aid – including drinking water, non-perishable food, baby food, medical supplies, personal hygiene products, blankets, winter clothes, shoes and masks – as well as Bible resources.

Bible Society Australia is also continuing its longstanding partnership with the Bible Society in Syria’s Trauma Healing program.

For more information and to donate, visit: biblesociety.org.au/projects/response