Volunteer groups rush to aid Turkey quake victims

Diyarbakir, Turkey – Volunteers at a three-storey office block in Diyarbakir sit amid a fog of cigarette smoke, sipping cups of black tea as they plan the logistics of delivering aid to victims of Turkey’s earthquake disaster.

Dozens of helpers, working from offices borrowed from the city’s Chamber of Commerce, are coordinating cargoes of supplies for millions of people affected by the catastrophe last week.

They are just a small cog in a machine of many aid operations set up by ordinary citizens across Turkey.

“Our motivation comes from wanting to support our people, and that’s what we’re working for,” said Evin Seker, a 30-year-old sociologist who normally works for a law firm in Diyarbakir, a southeastern city of two million in a province that bears the same name, and the largest Kurdish-majority city in Turkey.

“I previously worked as a volunteer for an NGO helping children, and when the earthquake happened, we all came together to help the people who have lost everything.”

Seker and her fellow volunteers are working around the clock to organise aid ranging from food and shelter to toiletries and clothing. They have also sent rescue workers and medics to the disaster zone.

Their initial focus was on Diyarbakir itself, which is the easternmost of the 10 provinces hit by the February 6 quakes, but it has now switched to other provinces such as Kahramanmaras, Adiyaman and Hatay, where the death toll and level of destruction are far larger.

“Only a handful of buildings collapsed in Diyarbakir, but there was still a great loss of life,” said Sirac Celik, a trade union official helping at the aid centre.

Some 350 people died in Diyarbakir, according to the Diyarbakir City Protection and Solidarity Platform. Search and rescue efforts were continuing on Monday at three sites where 55 people are thought to be under the rubble.

“We have organised hundreds of places for people to stay across the city and we are looking after them as well as arranging trucks carrying whatever is needed to other provinces,” Celik said.

Across the city, a takeaway kebab restaurant in the Yenisehir neighbourhood has been turned into an improvised aid distribution centre.

Kebab Stop owner Sinan Guneri was shaken from bed by the first earthquake. He soon gathered his staff to begin distributing free meals around the city to rescue teams and survivors.

His business has been put on hold as Guneri, together with family, friends and other local businesses, loads aid convoys in the street outside.

“We are not doing this for money,” he said. “We are just trying to help people. People and other businesses bring what’s necessary here and we prepare trucks to send them to the earthquake areas. People even bring things from their homes to send.

“We are going to the villages and other places that are difficult to reach. It’s our duty to help people as best we can.”

Guneri and his band of volunteers synchronise their efforts with other ad hoc citizen aid groups across the country through Twitter and WhatsApp.

“The biggest problem is coordination,” he said. “At the moment my partner is with the trucks and I am speaking to other groups to find where the places are that need help most urgently.”

Yilmaz Tekin, a 32-year-old volunteer loading an aid truck at another hastily established distribution centre in Diyarbakir, said his parents told him how ordinary citizens had volunteered to provide aid after the 1999 Marmara earthquake that struck east of Istanbul, killing an estimated 18,000 people.

“We are all here because we feel a real need to do something to help people,” he said.

“This earthquake is like nothing we have seen before, but my parents knew people who died in the Marmara earthquake and they told me how the state did nothing in the early days so people had to help each other.”

From a small building housing the offices of a teachers’ association in Diyarbakir’s Kayapinar district, Tekin and scores of others form a human chain to pass aid supplies hand-to-hand to a lorry that is too big to access the narrow road.

“We were here within three hours of the earthquake hitting,” he said. “Although Diyarbakir is a big city, sometimes it feels smaller because everyone looks out for each other. We apply that spirit to the work we’re doing now.”

It is not just lorries that carry supplies from the white-painted, two-storey building, but also private cars, the boot and back seats piled high with blankets, clothing, sugar, tea and other necessities.

Kurdish language teacher Fesih Zirek is overseeing the operation from a small office at the back of the building. A steady stream of people comes and goes and the corridor outside is congested with volunteers hauling boxes of supplies.

“Of course, it is great to see so many people who feel the need to help,” Zirek said. “But the tragedy is always close to the surface for everyone. We hope these days will pass soon.”

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