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'A crane, for God's sake': A mother's plea for help

A man walks by the rubble of collapsed buildings in the historic southern city of Antakya. - AFP
A man walks by the rubble of collapsed buildings in the historic southern city of Antakya. - AFP

ANTAKYA/ISTANBUL: Kevser said she could hear her two sons trapped beneath the rubble of their collapsed apartment building in the Turkish city of Antakya but for two days she was unable to find an emergency response leader to order their rescue.

"Everyone's saying they're not in charge. We can't find who's in charge," she said on Tuesday last week, standing on a downtown street where at least a dozen other buildings had collapsed. "I've been begging and begging for just one crane to lift the concrete."

"Time's running out. A crane, for God's sake."

When Reuters returned to the street a day later, neighbours said no more survivors had been pulled from the wreckage of the building.

Many in Türkiye say more people could have survived the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck the south of the country and neighbouring Syria a week ago if the emergency response had been faster and better organised.

Reuters spoke to dozens of residents and overwhelmed first-responders who expressed bewilderment at a lack of water, food, medicine, body bags and cranes in the disaster zone in the days following the quake - leaving hundreds of thousands of people to fend for themselves in the depths of winter.

The death toll from both countries on Sunday exceeded 33,000, making it among the world's worst natural disasters this century and Türkiye's deadliest earthquake since 1939.

"The general problem here is of organisation, especially in the field of health," Onur Naci Karahanci, a doctor working in Türkiye's southeastern city of Adiyaman, said on a call hosted by the Turkish Medical Association (TTB), the professional grouping for doctors. He said there weren't enough body bags for the dead, especially in the first two days after the quake.

In the cities of Antakya and Kahramanmaras, close to the epicentre of the quake, many reporters saw very few rescue teams in the first 48 hours.

Some survivors said they had tried unsuccessfully to contact Türkiye's Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) and ended up begging local teams to rescue their relatives from the wreckage - only to be told that such requests must go through AFAD's coordination centres, witnesses said.

Asked about the rescue efforts, AFAD's press department directed the news agency to the interior ministry, saying its teams were busy in the field. The interior ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

AFAD has been tasked since 2009 with coordinating disaster response and aid efforts in Türkiye by its 7,300 personnel and more than 600,000 volunteers, as well as by other Turkish and foreign groups.

AFAD said on Saturday in its regular public briefing that more than 218,000 AFAD responders, police, gendarmerie, soldiers, volunteers and other personnel were now deployed in the quake zone.

However, AFAD's top officials have not publicly addressed some residents' criticism of its slow response.

Two experts consulted partly blamed the delays on the centralisation of emergency response under AFAD by President Tayyip Erdogan's government.

This included restricting the military's freedom to deploy its troops without direct instruction from civilian authorities, and sidelining of other first-responders, such as the Red Crescent and the AKUT search and rescue group, they said.

Hetav Rojan, a Copenhagen-based security advisor for Danish authorities and expert on the region, said Turkey's politics and governance has "gravitated towards centralisation" under the ruling AK Party. - Reuters

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