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Jewish Journal

Rescuers battle to find Turkey quake survivors, save baby

By Jonathon Burch and Seda Sezer, Reuters

October 25, 2011 | 8:55 am

Rescue workers carry a baby from a collapsed building in Ercis, near the eastern Turkish city of Van, on Oct. 25. Photo by REUTERS/Stringe

Rescue workers carry a baby from a collapsed building in Ercis, near the eastern Turkish city of Van, on Oct. 25. Photo by REUTERS/Stringe

Rescuers pulled a two-week-old baby girl alive from the arms of her mother buried under a collapsed building on Tuesday as a search continued for survivors from a quake in eastern Turkey that killed at least 366 people and left thousands homeless.

Hope of finding people alive under tons of rubble was fading with every passing hour as rescuers pulled out more bodies and thousands of residents slept for a second night in crowded tents or huddled around fires and in cars across a region rattled by aftershocks in Van province, near the Iranian border.

With victims accusing the central government of being slow in delivering aid to a region inhabited mostly by minority Kurds, Ankara said it was sending more tents and blankets.

“We have no tents, everybody is living outdoors. Van has collapsed psychologically, life has stopped. Tens of thousands are on the streets. Everybody is in panic,” Kemal Balci, a construction worker said as he awaited news on friends injured in the quake at a hospital in the city of Van.

“Aid has been arriving late. Van has been reduced to zero. We have no jobs, no bread, no water and there are nine members in my family. If the government doesn’t give a hand to Van it will be like Afghanistan. Van has been pushed back 100 years.”

The 7.2-magnitude quake, Turkey’s most powerful in a decade, is one more affliction for Kurds, the dominant ethnic group in impoverished southeast Turkey, where more than 40,000 people have been killed in a three-decade-long separatist insurgency.

On Monday, Turkish tanks and armored vehicles crossed into northern Iraq headed in the direction of a Kurdish militant camp as part of cross-border operations in the wake of an attack last week by Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighters that killed 24 Turkish soldiers.

Quake rescue efforts focused on Ercis, a town of 100,000 that was worst hit, and the provincial capital Van, which has a population of one million.

Emergency workers extracted the infant girl alive from the wreckage on Tuesday, two days after it was buried with its mother under an apartment block.

The mother was clutching the child to her chest when the were reached by rescuers, who set about rescuing the mother and a grandmother who were also still alive.

“We’re going to get them out soon,” a rescuer assured the other grandmother, whose eyes brimmed with tears of joy over the survival of her grandchild.

Elsewhere, exhausted workers used machinery, jackhammers, shovels, pick axes and bare hands to comb through rubble. Every so often, they would shout for silence and generators and diggers would stop, straining to hear voices under the wreckage. Seconds later the drone of the machinery would start again.

Officials said 12,000 more tents would reach Van on Tuesday after complaints that entire families were cramming into tents and television images showed desperate men pushing each other roughly to grab tents from the back of a Red Crescent truck.

The Turkish Red Crescent has said it was preparing temporary shelter for about 40,000 people, although there were no reliable figures for the homeless. Many residents spent the night outside fearing any return to their damaged homes.

Turkish authorities have been criticized for failing to ensure that some of the neediest, particularly in villages, received tents as night temperatures plummeted.

“Life has become hell. We are outside, the weather is cold. There are no tents,” said Emin Kayram, 53, sitting by a camp fire in Ercis after spending the night with his family of eight in a van parked nearby.

His nephew was trapped in the debris of a building behind him, where rescue workers had been digging through the night.

“He is 18, a student. He is still stuck in there. This is the third day but you can’t lose hope. We have to wait here.”

How fast Ankara manages to deliver aid and long-term relief to the survivors might have political consequences in a region plagued by poverty and the Kurdish insurgency, analysts said.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who secured a third consecutive term with a strong majority at a June election, has pledged to push reforms in parliament and rewrite the constitution to address long-time Kurdish grievances in an effort to end violence.

“If we want to win the hearts of our brothers of Kurdish origin, we should act now. We should beat the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) with this approach, which is more effective than arms,” leading commentator Mehmet Ali Birand wrote.

Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Administration said on Tuesday the death toll had risen to 366, with 1,301 people injured. The overnight death toll stood at 279.

The death count was likely to rise further as many people were still missing and 2,262 buildings have collapsed.

“It was like judgment day,” said Mesut Ozan Yilmaz, 18, who survived for 32 hours under the rubble of a tea house where he had been passing time with friends.

Unhurt but lying on a hospital bed under a thick blanket, his face blackened by dust and dirt, Yilmaz gave a chilling account to CNN Turk of how he survived by diving under a table.

“The space we had was so narrow. People were fighting for more space to survive,” Yilmaz said. “I rested my head on a dead man’s foot. I know I would be dead now if I had let myself go psychologically.”

The government has received offers of aid from dozens of countries around the world, including from former ally Israel, but has so far accepted aid only from Bulgaria, Azerbaijan and Iran.

The center of Van resembled a ghost town with no lights in the streets or buildings. Hardly any people could be seen.

The sense of dislocation was even greater in Ercis. With no homes to go back to, thousands of people, mostly men, paced the streets, stopping to look at the destruction or whenever there was some commotion at a rescue site.

At one collapsed building on the main road through Ercis, exhausted rescue workers shouted at crowds of men pushing forward to catch a glimpse as efforts were made to free a woman’s corpse from the rubble.

“Get back. Are you not human? Show some respect. Do we not have any honor or pride?” one rescue worker yelled. Crowds formed at one demolished building where bystanders said a trapped boy had made contact by mobile phone.

As a rescue team dug at the rubble, one man screamed at the workers: “Where were you last night? I told you last night there were people here.”

Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay; Writing by Ibon Villelabeitia, Daren Butler and Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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