Editor’s Note: The following piece was submitted by SOFREP reader and 5th Special Forces Group veteran Paul Klopfer who was part of a recovery team at the disaster site working with Aerial Recovery. We thank him for his contribution. 

Humanity Under the Rubble.

The February 6, 2023, earthquakes, centered in Kahramanmaraş and Gaziantep, Turkey, unearthed both ungodly destruction and absolute humanity, each in their purest form.
The scene in Kahramanmaraş was and is utterly terrible. Men, women, and children move handful after handful of dirt and debris, to pull loved ones from the collapsed structures. It is a collective movement of mountains: a quietly synchronized and sober effort. The unspoken despair is interrupted periodically by calls for complete silence of man and machines as all listen for any sign of life.

Increasingly rarely, a collective exclamation of hope rings out as the living are pulled from their tombs of concrete, steel, and heirlooms. The destructive fault has been answered by a communal and selfless human response; both local and international teams have united efforts against time and gravity. Noticeably absent in these moments is the presence of Afet ve Acil Durum Yönetimi Başkanlığı (AFAD), a governmental disaster management agency operating under the Turkish Ministry of Interior.

Although these initials are printed on tens of thousands of tents throughout the internally displaced persons camps, the consensus among the civilian response is that AFAD representation was insufficient in the collective recovery effort.

Kahramanmaraş after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Turkey. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

A man from Kahramanmaraş stated, “Before the government arrived, four days after the earthquakes, it was just regular people pulling their neighbors out of the rubble, mostly the dead.”
It would be unfair to present only this public consensus, in light of the trauma of this disaster; much of the blame is a collective coping mechanism. Many AFAD personnel are working tirelessly in their local communities and regional efforts have established Crisis Response Centers(CRCs) near the areas of greatest impact, providing medical, logistic, and coordination capabilities.

The public sentiment is beginning to reflect these worthwhile objectives as the CRCs begin to manage the Aid and Housing of the affected regions. This, however, has little bearing on the ongoing Search and Rescue (SAR) efforts: FADA’s irreproachable delay is attributed to the centralization of power under the current Turkish government, as even emergency aid and SAR are treated as political chess pieces.

The bureaucratic fault also delayed the entrance of international Search and Rescue teams to the areas of greatest need. Put simply, the scale of the disaster overwhelmed their capacity to process the required documentation. These organizations offered enhanced search techniques: a combination of search dogs, thermal, radar, and sonar systems, along with the training and experience of these crews. Desperate to help, these international crews rented cars, hopped on cargo trucks, and bartered for helicopter rides from the Turkish Military, in order to make their way, themselves, to the impact areas, as far south as Antakya.

The destruction in Antakya, the ancient city of Antioch, is among the worst. Although further from the epicenter of the earthquakes, continual aftershocks have had an outsized effect on the extremely low-quality tenement buildings in the city. Among the poorest refugee populations live in these low-grade, high-density constructions. Twice victimized: by the ongoing Civil War in Syria and by the indifference of nature. One of the buildings in Antakya had both a canine and radar hit, indicating the possibility of someone alive underneath. There was a small coalition of the willing working at this site for four days: the French Heavy SAR team, Aerial Recovery Group (a nonprofit disaster response organization), the Gideon Rescue Dog Team, a few experienced German volunteers, and a Turkish expatriate from Texas, operating as a translator.