The girl with sad eyes must be around 10 or 12 years old. She hardly moves as she stares into the camera phone. Whenever she does move, her gestures are slow and sluggish. The man who is filming the video spots her and cries out in astonished delight.
“There’s someone here! There’s someone here!”
But there is no one around, only a leaden light and the silence of snowfall. They are somewhere in southeastern Turkey, a region that has just been devastated by two 7.8- and 7.5-magnitude earthquakes.
The man approaches the girl, whose body is pinned from the chest down by collapsed concrete. It is clear they do not know each other.
“Are you thirsty?” he asks.
“I’m cold,” the girl replies. “My brother is also here.”
“Can you move?”
“No,” the girl replies weakly. Even with her fading voice, she has finally managed to make herself heard. But there is no hope in her eyes. It has been half a day since the first earthquake struck at 4 in the morning. Soon it will be evening again.
“Can you move your legs?”
“Very difficult,” says the girl in a soft voice, which is hard to understand. There is a new expression on her face now, as if she were hiding something or as if she was embarrassed about some personal shortcoming.
The snow that has been falling intermittently during the night and in the morning is slowly drawing a blanket over the agony of the earthquake, the dead and the dying, the ruins of two- to three-story houses and 15- to 16-story blocks that collapsed during a few seconds in the night.
We can sense that the man filming on his phone is unsure about what to do. On his own, he cannot pull the girl free of that cramped, terrifyingly heavy pile of concrete. They both fall quiet.
The girl’s eyes begin to glaze over; her exhaustion, her pain are written on her face.
“You stay right here. I’m going to go and get you some help. We’re going to get you out of there.”
But the man sounds uncertain. This neighborhood, leveled by the earthquake, probably lies far from the city center. With streets and bridges all destroyed, help has yet to come. It is unlikely that it will be here anytime soon.
Some of those who live here, who might have made it out alive from their crumbling homes into the dark, snowy night, must have gone elsewhere to seek shelter from the cold. But it is possible that apart from the girl and her brother, no one else in her family has survived, and so there is nobody looking for her.
“Don’t go!” the trapped child says eventually.
“I have to go, but I’ll be back!” the man says. “I won’t forget about you. I’m going to get help.”
We can tell that the girl, who has spent more than half a day trapped here on her own, is already preparing herself to die and has no strength left to object.
Even so, she says again “Don’t go!,” her voice as faint as a whisper.
“I’m going to go and get you some help!” the man says, and though his voice is louder this time, we cannot quite believe him.
This is where his phone recording ends. We do not know whether he was able to get help. His was one of hundreds of desperate pleas and first-person accounts I had watched that first day, glued to my screen for hours. Like many others, the man who had recorded the trapped little girl posted the video on Twitter, straightforwardly and without further comment.
I have been waiting for another video showing the trapped girl being rescued, but it hasn’t come.
Finding help is not as easy as the man with the mobile phone might have thought. According to the figures released by the state, approximately 7,000 buildings in the area have been damaged or destroyed. The earthquake also hit Syria. Just as the true number of victims is probably much higher than is being reported (the most recent figures say the death toll is now more than 23,000), the actual number of collapsed buildings is also likely to be far greater. With roads closed and mobile phones not working properly because of power cuts and congested networks, there is little information at all on what is happening in the smaller provincial towns. On Twitter and on social media we see posts suggesting that some villages have been wholly destroyed. But is this true?
This is the largest earthquake to have struck Turkey in more than 80 years. It is the fourth major earthquake I have experienced, from near or far, since I was a child. After the 1999 Marmara earthquake, which killed more than 17,000 people, I had gone to Yalova, one of the towns ravaged by that disaster. I wandered for hours among the concrete ruins, filled with a sense of guilt and responsibility, and thinking I might at least help clear some of the rubble, only to return home without having been able to help anyone at all. The spectacular sight from that day stayed with me, along with the frustration and sadness that I want to forget but have never managed to.
Now these images are being crowded out by new and yet all too familiar ones. The sense of helplessness is crushing.
With airports damaged and roads impassable, it took even the media conglomerates hours to reach several big cities the earthquake has turned into hellscapes. Half a day after the disaster, they arrived in those snowy, rainy, windy streets to find themselves faced with millions of people angrily waiting for help. According to the numbers released by the Turkish state, 13.5 million people in the region have been affected by the earthquake. According to the World Health Organization, up to 23 million in Turkey and Syria might be affected.
The disaster reached truly apocalyptic dimensions when, nine hours after the first 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck in the middle of the night, a 7.5-magnitude earthquake followed. This second earthquake, whose epicenter was about 60 miles from the first, forced millions of people who had been driven outside by the aftershocks from the first quake to witness scenes of manifest horror. The crowds had wandered the streets in search of help or food, sifting with their bare hands, brick by brick, through the ruins of multistory blocks reduced to rubble or looking for a warm, covered space in which to shelter. They now began to film the destruction on their phones, crying “Oh, my God, oh, my God,” as within seconds, building after building collapsed like a house of cards, leaving only mountains of dust in its wake.
Many people have posted these images of grotesque horror on social media without so much as a comment, a caption or even a few words to accompany them. In doing so, they are sending two messages. The first is the thing made manifest in their shock: the stunning, staggering scale of the catastrophe. The second is the feeling of abandonment and despair, felt by the whole country and as harrowing as the earthquake itself.
These apocalyptic scenes have at once brought out a poignant spirit of solidarity and mutual assistance, and kindled people’s instinct to share, to gather witnesses, to leave a mark, to make their voices heard. In the rubble-heaped center of every major city, anyone within reach of a reporter’s microphone seems to be shouting “Film here, film here, we need help, we need food, where’s the government, where are the rescue teams?”
Aid has been dispatched, but the trucks loaded with supplies are stuck for hours on jammed roads hundreds of miles from the affected areas. People who have lost their homes, their families, their loved ones, everything they ever had find that there is nobody doing anything about the fires beginning to break out in their cities. And so they block the path of any official vehicle, policeman or government employee they can find and start to remonstrate. I have never seen our people so angry.
As the second day plunges into evening, the noises coming from the piles of rubble and concrete grow fainter and the people out on the streets start to become accustomed to the horror. Crowds begin to gather in front of vans distributing bread and food. But the anger, the bitterness, the desperate sense of having been caught unawares remain undimmed.
The next day, I learn from social media posts that there are doctors who have taken it upon themselves to travel long distances to lend a hand in some of the larger cities destroyed by this earthquake, but there seems to be no authority, no one in charge to direct their efforts upon arrival. To people’s appalled dismay, even some public hospitals have collapsed.
Two days later, some help arrives at the centers of main cities. But for many people, it is too little and too late.
Orhan Pamuk was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006. His most recent novel is “Nights of Plague.” This essay was translated by Ekin Oklap from the Turkish.
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