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When the earthquake hit: “Everything is shaking, people are screaming. Outside it is cold and dark.”

Destruction in Gaziantep, Turkey after the devastating February 2023 earthquakes. Photo: Tarek Satea/CARE

Destruction in Gaziantep, Turkey after the devastating February 2023 earthquakes. Photo: Tarek Satea/CARE

Ayham Taha has been working in humanitarian aid since the conflict in Syria started, but he says the destruction from the February 6 earthquakes is worse than anything he has ever seen.

He is a technical advisor for CARE Global, and he was in Gaziantep when the disaster struck.

This is his story.

“The earthquake hits us at 4:17 in the morning…”

Destruction in Gaziantep hours after the magnitude 7.8 earthquake in February 2023. Photo: Ayham Taha

I immediately take my wife’s hand, carry my 5-year-old son in my arms and run out of the house as quickly as possible. Everything is shaking, people are screaming. Outside it is cold and dark.

We all find it hard to realize what just happened, but I know right away what I have to do. I have practiced this many times before. I have to reach out to my team, but I notice that I do not have my phone. It is still inside the house. Luckily though, a neighbor, who is also outside in the street, lets me use his.

“We cannot go back into our house…”

Sports hall used as a makeshift shelter in Gaziantep, Turkyie after a magnitude 7.8 earthquake hit Turkyie and Syria in February 2023. Photo: Mutlu Yetkin

The building has small cracks all over. It is not safe to go back inside, because the building could collapse at any time. Through friends, we hear that a collective center is open in my son’s school. But then there are the aftershocks, and I am not sure if the school is stable enough.

Nearly every hour there is a new aftershock. There is a lot of panic.

My wife and I try to calm our son down and tell him everything is going to be ok. We discuss what the safest option for us is and finally decide to stay in our car – like so many others are doing.

It is freezing cold, so we keep our engines running the whole time, to have, at least, some warmth. I can hardly sleep. I am keeping an eye on the gasoline indicator, which is slowly but surely getting lower and lower. Once it is close to being empty, we try to find some more fuel. But the gas stations are crowded with people, desperate to refuel their own vehicles. We wait in line for five to six hours before it is our turn.

The mood in Gaziantep is a mixture of sadness and desperation but also of immense human warmth and solidarity. Many people had to leave their wallets inside the buildings that collapsed after being evacuated. Still, local restaurants help by giving out soup and fruits. People are helping each other survive. I see shopkeepers offering children more food and some chocolate, knowing this might comfort them.

After I fill my car’s gasoline tank, I go out to get food for my family. It is amazing to see how people come together to help each other in this way.

Destruction in Gaziantep, Turkey after the devastating February 2023 earthquakes. Photo: Tarek Satea/CARE

Still the situation remains very difficult.

I don’t know how it will continue. How many more aftershocks will hit us and how many buildings will collapse? At this moment we do not know how many people are affected or have lost their lives or a family member and everything they own.

I feel exhausted and stressed. I even start smoking – I have never smoked before in my life!

But I consider myself to be really lucky: I have not lost anyone close to me.

I know that my family cannot stay in Gaziantep, so on Thursday, after sleeping in our car for three nights, we leave for Mardin – a city about 120 miles east of Gaziantep. This region has been spared the destruction of the earthquake.

I drive slowly, as the roads are severely damaged. We are really scared. There is a lot of traffic; many people are trying to evacuate the city.

Once we reach Mardin, I find a couple of hotels that are fit for accommodation. I immediately call my manager at CARE and we decide that we will move the rest of the CARE staff here. In the hotel, I sleep for the first time since the earthquake.

“We are finally safe, and I feel like I can start working again…”

Emergency team members search for people under the rubble of a destroyed building in southeastern Turkey. Photo: Grayscale Media.

We set up a makeshift office in the hotel lobby until further decisions are made. People are sitting around with their laptops, eager to organize how we can get the much-needed support to the people who need it the most. We are now prioritizing the delivery of equipment to emergency shelters like tents, mattresses, and blankets. Additionally, we provide food and baby items as well as hygiene and dignity kits to women and girls who are especially affected by this crisis. In Syria there is also a huge need for emergency shelters and as well as food and clean drinking water.

We as CARE cannot prevent disasters like that, but we can improve the conditions for the people affected.

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