Diyarbakir, Turkey – Volunteers in a three-storey office block in Diyarbakir sit amidst a haze of cigarette smoke, sipping cups of black tea as they plan the logistics of delivering aid to Turkey’s earthquake victims.
Dozens of helpers, working from offices borrowed from the city’s Chamber of Commerce, coordinated the cargo of supplies for the millions of people affected by last week’s disaster.
They are just a small cog in the engine of the many relief operations being carried out by ordinary citizens across Turkey.
“Our motivation comes from wanting to support our people, and that’s what we work for,” said Evin Seker, a 30-year-old sociologist who usually works for a law firm in Diyarbakir, a southeastern city of two million people. the province that bears the same name, and the largest Kurdish-majority city in Turkey.
“I previously worked as a volunteer at an NGO that helps children, and when the earthquake happened, we all got together to help people who had lost everything.”
Seker and his fellow volunteers are working around the clock to organize relief from food and shelter to toiletries and clothing. They have also dispatched rescue workers and medics to the disaster zone.
Their initial focus was on Diyarbakir itself, which was the easternmost of the 10 provinces hit by the February 6 quake, but have now turned to other provinces such as Kahramanmaras, Adiyaman and Hatay, where the death toll and extent of destruction is far greater. .
“Only a handful of buildings have collapsed in Diyarbakir, but there are still many casualties,” said Sirac Celik, a trade union official who is assisting at the aid centre.
About 350 people died in Diyarbakir, according to the Diyarbakir City Solidarity and Protection Platform. Search and rescue efforts continued Monday at three locations where 55 people are estimated to be under the rubble.
“We have arranged hundreds of shelters for people across the city and we look after them and arrange for trucks to bring whatever is needed to other provinces,” said Celik.
Across town, a takeaway kebab restaurant in the Yenisehir neighborhood has been converted into a distribution center for improvised aid.
Kebab Stop owner Sinan Guneri was shaken from bed by the first quake. He immediately gathered his staff to start distributing free food around the city to rescuers and survivors.
His business came to a halt as Guneri, along with family, friends and other local businesses, loaded a relief convoy on the road outside.
“We’re not doing this for the money,” he said. “We’re just trying to help the community. People and other businesses bring what is needed here and we have trucks ready to send them to the earthquake area. People even brought things from their homes for delivery.
“We will go to villages and other hard-to-reach places. It is our job to help people as best we can.”
Guneri and his group of volunteers sync their efforts with other ad hoc citizen assistance groups across the country via Twitter and WhatsApp.
“The biggest problem is coordination,” he said. “Right now my partner is with the truck and I are talking to other groups to find out where the places that need help the most are.”
Yilmaz Tekin, a 32-year-old volunteer who trucked aid at another hastily set up distribution center in Diyarbakir, said his parents told him how ordinary citizens volunteered to provide aid after the 1999 Marmara earthquake that struck east of Istanbul, killing some 18,000 person.
“We are all here because we feel we urgently need to do something to help people,” he said.
“This earthquake was like nothing we have seen before but my parents knew people who died in the Marmara earthquake and they told me how the country did nothing in the early days so people should help each other.”
From a small building that housed the offices of the teachers’ association in Kayapinar district, Diyarbakir, Tekin and a number of others formed a human chain to deliver aid directly to trucks too big to access narrow roads.
“We were here within three hours of the earthquake,” he said. “Even though Diyarbakir is a big city, sometimes it feels smaller because everyone takes care of each other. We apply that passion to the work we do now.”
It was not just trucks bringing supplies from the white two-story building, but also private cars, luggage and backseats piled high with blankets, clothes, sugar, tea and other necessities.
Kurdish teacher Fesih Zirek oversees operations from a small office at the back of the building. A stream of people came and went and the corridor outside was filled with volunteers hauling boxes of supplies.
“Of course it’s great to see so many people feel the need to help,” said Zirek. “But the tragedy is always close to the surface for everyone. We hope these days will pass soon.”