‘I haven’t stopped crying… but we have hope, we pray’
“All week I haven’t stopped crying. I have to be strong for my kids and my wife, but the only thing keeping me going is that my immediate family is alive. But we lost so much, so much.”
Those are the words of Ali Atlia, who is from Antakya in the Hatay province, one of 10 regions in Turkey hit, which along with neighbouring parts of Syria, were hit by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake in the early hours of Monday morning last week.
It was followed by a 7.5 magnitude tremor, and numerous aftershocks, causing the deaths of more than 40,000 people, and injuring thousands more.
“I come from a big family. My cousins are still trapped, they have kids, they don’t even know if they are still alive or not.
“I was born there, I lived there until I came to Ireland in 2007,” said Ali, who lives in Kinnegad with his wife Jane and two children.
A chef working in the Bridge House in Enfield, Ali has five sisters living at home, three in Hatay, which was devastated by quakes, and his 78-year-old mother. He says that his home town is beginning to smell with the stench of death.
The first day
“By their bare hands, they dug and pulled people from the rubble,” said Ali, explaining that one of his sisters lives on the third floor of an apartment block.
“Her house ended up in the garden, without walls, her sofa in the garden. The first two floors under her collapsed like salt.
“She said you had to get out, but you could hear people needed help – shouting and screaming. It’s devastating.”
When his sister managed to get out, her thoughts immediately went to their mother, who lived a 15-minute walk away.
“My mother’s house was the same, in the garden, all the walls were unstable. The second quake, which was 7.5, happened within an hour and 40 minutes. The first quake knocked down the buildings, the second one made things worse, and after that there were 78 aftershocks that first night.
“All the roads are blocked so it took them one and a half hours in a car. My mum was stuck under her building for six hours but she managed to get out. And it was our neighbours who got her out. And that is the saddest thing.
“Our neighbours upstairs are like our family. My mum lived in that building for 40 years, and if I go home now and if my mum is not at home, I go up to their house, have a shower, relax on the sofa just like my home, and their kids would do the same. We are one big family.
“Anyway that family was trying to find their mother, calling out for her and there was nothing, no response.
“It was them that could hear my mum shouting, so they saved her. They were searching for two days before they found their own mum. They can see where she is, they can’t reach her, but she is dead.
“My mother still can’t talk. We video call but there is no words, we cry. Today, the first thing I called her to see her face, and she started to cry, she make me cry. I can’t even ask her how she is, because I know – what is she going to say? Can she say she’s ok? Can I say I’m ok? There are no words for it.”
“What they needed was petrol to get out of town. Because everything collapsed, everything’s gone – there’s no petrol stations, no power, no gas. My mum didn’t have socks on her feet the last two days,” said Ali.
“They wanted to get out of town and get away from the danger zone, and they are not alone. A million people live there, and that’s only my home town, there are 10 other cities affected.”
The population of Ali’s hometown is 1.7 million people.
“When I came to Ireland in 2007, the population was 120,000. It’s jumped to 1.7m because we are right on the border of Syria. In my childhood we used to go to Syria – from the mountains, we can see the lights the same as from here to Kinnegad or Enfield. And we haven’t even talked about Syria. I swear to God, those people have suffered. Eleven years of suffering with the war, and now this.”
Two of Ali’s sisters and his mother got out of the city and made it to another sister living in the capital, Ankara, but his youngest sister was stuck.
“There are no banks, no ATMs left, everything’s gone, and only cash works. So I called my childhood friend, he lives here in Ireland, but he was home on holidays when the quake hit. Where he lives was not too badly affected, so I called him and asked him to find my sister and give her some cash.
“My sister had some money, whatever was in the car – they can’t go back to the house and get anything. They had around 1000 lira [€49]. And when she was driving out of town, she saw someone selling fruit, she paid 150 lira for one orange, which is €7.50. And they grow freely at home, they grow in the garden, there is no cost for those things.
“So she was stuck for cash, but thank God my friend reached her, her husband and her child, and managed to give cash. I asked him how much he had in cash, he only had 5000 lira [€250] and I sent it to him straight away. So she managed to get out and she’s in Izmir now with my other sister.”
Ali said the Turkish government are trying their best, but the disaster region is so large, it is impossible for them to reach everyone.
The provinces affected have a population of 30.5 million, a sixth of the total population of Turkey, and Ali believes the death toll will rise further. “The first night, people had nothing, then aid started coming in, actually more than they need,” said Ali.
“What people need now is hospitals, petrol, money to get a roof over their heads. They don’t need food – food is there now, clothes, blankets are there now. They are asking people not to travel there unless they are professional search and rescue or medics.
“What they need now is money, to try to rebuild their lives, the towns, the hospitals. There are no hospitals left, they are in tents. When they start building again, they will need money for machines for cardio, for scanners, for wheelchairs, because so many people lost legs, arms.
“How can I explain it? You have everything – my sister had everything, a fantastic job. She is a beautician, her own salon, a beautiful house, the kids go to expensive schools and colleges. And in one night she has nothing. Nothing left.
Irish NGOs GOAL, Concern, Irish Red Cross and UNICEF are working on the ground, and An Post have waived fees for financial donations to be made to those organisations so that the entirety of the donation goes directly to charity.
Ali said that if people wish to donate, the non-profit Ahbap, is the most trusted charity in Turkey. “One hundred percent of the donation goes to those who need it with Ahbap. Or, if you know someone out there, you find them and give face to face.”