When Monday’s devastating earthquakes struck Türkiye and Syria, killing thousands of people, Olga Borzenkova, a spokesperson for the UN migration agency (IOM), was in Gaziantep, Türkiye, one of the most affected areas. She describes her experience, and the emergency response effort that is underway.
“Like hundreds of thousands of other people in South-Eastern Türkiye I was fast asleep when the world started to shake. I don’t really know how to describe to anyone who hasn’t felt an earthquake, let alone one of the biggest ever recorded in this region.
It’s just completely surreal. The floor and the walls were shaking, bending, and as we ran down the three floors to the street our only thought was to get far, far away from buildings.
It was sixty seconds of the worst terror I have ever felt. As we calmed down a bit and realised we had survived the shaking, we also realised it was raining, we were cold, and our legs felt like jelly, like they were not really part of our bodies. Everyone around us was calling out, shouting, screaming.
‘Saddening beyond words’
It took us a while but eventually we found a place to shelter after the urgency of the second quake, in a school. Along with hundreds of others we sat, lay down or stood on the basketball court, getting word to our families that we were safe.
Then I checked in with work and started to assess how I could help, how I could tell them what was going on, how to pay tribute to the wonderful people who were doing all they could to help me and thousands like me.
We spent Monday night in a shelter run by the Government. We felt a few trembles but it was comfortable and we had hot drinks and some food, as well as a place to sleep. Now I’m in the office, catching up on everything, including the heart-breaking news that we lost a colleague. Some others are injured, and have lost family members and, in some cases, homes. Others like my team member survived just by a miracle in Hatay.
It’s saddening beyond words. One minute we were sleeping, and the next we are part of one of the biggest disasters on the planet.
I am screaming inside, with despair, grief and fear. But I look at my colleagues, my neighbours, and my friends, who are affected much more than me, and they inspire me to carry on.
Massive shelter needs
Türkiye is of course hugely prone to earthquakes and has built a world-class response mechanism. We’ve been working with them for more than 30 years and they are phenomenal partners. But even they will be stretched by this. This is a double whammy – over a million people who fled the war in Syria have temporary protection status in the area hardest hit by the quake.
We are talking to the government to see how best we can help. In all situations like this, the first need is for search and rescue, and I know teams are pouring into the country from across the globe to assist. There will of course be massive shelter needs – so many thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people will be homeless and the weather is freezing. They will need somewhere to sleep short term. And they will need warm clothes, water, food, heating, there will be trauma and crush injuries, there will be huge mental scars.
Communities will have been devastated: schools and hospitals will have been damaged, workplaces wiped out. The logistics of aid will be fiendish – roads and runways will need to be rapidly repaired. This will be an enormous rescue, response and recovery operation and we are ready to respond in any way the government asks us to, for as long as it takes.