Disasters: Türkiye: The desperate search for earthquake victims

Ali Mursaloglu has been using a whole lot of whiskey for the past few weeks just to get at least a few hours of sleep.

Disasters: Türkiye: The desperate search for earthquake victims

Ali Mursaloglu has been using a whole lot of whiskey for the past few weeks just to get at least a few hours of sleep. He is the father, grandfather and father-in-law of people who may no longer exist.

Since the earthquakes in Turkey destroyed Mursaloglu's house three months ago, his son, daughter-in-law and their two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Ada have been swallowed up by the face of the earth. The 67-year-old hasn't let his cell phone out of his sight since then. "You could call at any moment," he has been thinking for twelve weeks. The pain is written all over the face of the man with the shaggy beard and swollen eyes.

On February 6, at 4:17 a.m., a 7.7-magnitude tremor shook southeastern Turkey, followed by a 7.6-magnitude tremor at 1:24 p.m. The destruction is particularly devastating in the city of Antakya, around 200 kilometers from the epicentres. The city is built on alluvium, a bad condition in earthquakes. Ali Mursaloglu knows this, he had his house tested three years ago, supervised the construction of the house himself and made sure it was built according to the ground. "I always said: Everything can collapse here, our house is stable," he says. Still, it didn't hold up.

No sign of the missing

The businessman Mursaloglu found out about the earthquake in Istanbul on his way back from a business trip. He can no longer reach his son, but he knows that the young family was at home that night. On the afternoon of February 6, Mursaloglu comes to Antakya. Only rubble remains of his four-storey house. As CEO of the Antakya Commodity Exchange, he is well connected. He organizes search dogs to search for his family in the rubble, and heavy equipment and miners to sift through the rubble layer by layer. When he's finished with his property, he sends the troops into the neighboring properties.

Perhaps the force of the earthquake threw them there? They search the rubble for eleven days. But even there he finds no trace of the missing persons. Mursaloglu does not give up, sends acquaintances to hospitals across the country to search the intensive care units, gives DNA samples, patrols the cemeteries and even seeks advice from fortune tellers, who give him hope but no concrete clues.

Have they been taken to a hospital where they might be in a coma? Did a family adopt the little girl? Were they all buried in one of the mass graves? Was the force of the earthquake so strong that the concrete pulverized the bodies of the young family?

Thomas Geiner, a doctor with earthquake experience and part of the team of disaster relief workers from the Navis association, considers the latter option to be hardly possible. "It's hard for me to imagine that someone gets so badly damaged that nothing can be proven anymore."

Were human remains dug with it?

Mursaloglu is not the only one still searching for traces of his family three months after the earthquake. There are no official figures on missing people, but in Antakya you hear such stories from many mouths. Antique dealer Hasan Güleryüz also misses his nephew, 19-year-old Mustafa Deviren.

For twelve days, Güleryüz had to bury a different family member every day. For eleven days he watched his father's foot sticking out of a heap of rubble until the concrete above him could be removed and he buried. The building in which the 19-year-old lived has already been officially demolished. He wasn't found. Güleryüz also plays through various scenarios. Maybe the boy got something on his head and doesn't remember where he belongs. Perhaps, in the chaos of the first few days, rescuers took him to another city.

Hasan Güleryüz does not name an option that is at least circulating as a rumor in many places. Not only in Antakya do people report that from a certain point in time human remains were also dug up. Instead of taking DNA tests from them and burying them, they are said to have ended up on the huge piles of rubble that are constantly growing throughout the affected areas. This is not officially confirmed. "I could imagine that during the salvage work with large equipment, dead people whose bodies are badly damaged could be overlooked," says Geiner.

In the first few days after the earthquake, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised that the area would not be cleared until everyone had been rescued from the rubble. A promise that many consider impossible to keep.

Doubts about the official death figures

According to the government, 50,800 people have been killed in connection with the tremors in Turkey. Among other things, the Turkish Medical Association TTB reports strong doubts about the number. "We believe that there have already been 250,000 to 300,000 deaths in Hatay province alone," says Nihat Sahbaz, who is currently based in the city of Kahramanmaras for the TTB. "In Kahramanmaras alone, we assume 50,000 dead." The opposition also raises doubts about the official death toll.

Mursaloglu and Güleryüz continue to hope for a miracle - or at least a trace. Twelve weeks after the quake, Mursaloglu continued to share the missing persons report on social media in the hope that one day his phone would still ring.