Survivors in Turkey say ‘new normal’ is coping with more quakes

The illusion of lives being rebuilt was shattered with new tremblers that reawakened recent traumas.

Gaziantep, Turkey – The possibility of life going back to normal in southern Turkey was shattered after a magnitude 6.3 earthquake rattled the Turkey-Syria border area on Monday night.

It was a reawakening of the recent trauma in Gaziantep, which was among the 10 provinces in Turkey devastated by earthquakes that killed more than 47,000 people in the country and neighbouring Syria.

Families were sitting around the table for dinner when the new earthquake struck. A magnitude 5.8 quake followed three minutes later.

“It made us lose hope in the slowly restored normality we were trying to rebuild,” said 21-year-old Mert Özyurtkan, an engineering student at the University of Gaziantep.

“On Sunday, I was speaking with my friends about how we had to push ourselves to go back to our daily routines before the quake, as a resilient way to cope with this tragedy that happened to us,” he told Al Jazeera.

“But apparently, this is our new normal, and God knows for how long it’ll be.”

The week in the city had kicked off with hopeful intentions: the majority of shops were open, supermarkets had returned to normal opening hours and public transport was operating in full force.

Özyurtkan’s father was ready to reopen his baklava shop on Tuesday morning, after several checks on the building’s safety.

But Monday night’s tremblers caused people to rush to the streets in the cold, again sleeping in cars and shelters, fully aware of what could happen and conscious of what they had survived the last time.

INTERACTIVE_ Turkey Syria New Earthquake USGS
(Al Jazeera)

“[These] earthquakes broke my trust in my flat,” said Uğur Ülger, a researcher at the University of Gaziantep, who had just returned to the city when the new quakes hit.

“Because I feel like all buildings have some capacity to resist earthquakes and the majority of buildings in the region already lost that potential. So I am looking forward to establishing a safer life.”

‘We miss normal’

Nur Ismail, 22, said she has lived in a constant state of shock for the past 10 days.

She felt her daily life had turned into a limbo where she was not capable of realising if it was real life or if she was in a dream.

“Over the weekend, I had finally decided to begin again a normal routine, go for a walk alone and meet some friends, after feeling like living in a cave for two weeks,” Ismail told Al Jazeera. “But I got scared and went directly back home. We can’t be normal again. We miss normal. I keep asking myself why this is happening to us.”

Ayham Kalaji, a humanitarian worker originally from Syria, has called Gaziantep home for the past few years. He said earthquakes have disrupted his daily life as much as the Syrian conflict did when he was living in Aleppo.

He fled the war next door to restart his life, but this recent disaster made him lose interest in his job. “It gave me a new perspective and pushed me to prioritise things,” Kalaji told Al Jazeera. “Life is not about having a successful career or better job or more money, it’s about living life in good health with family and friends.”

He added that this entire unstable situation of never knowing when the ground will shake again beneath his feet has brought back haunting memories from the war.

“For us Syrians, it made us feel like we are cursed,” he said.

‘We’re still not safe’

For Giuliana Ciucci, an Italian who moved to Gaziantep a few months before the earthquakes, the new normal is sleeping fully clothed and with a backpack with her most precious belongings next to her feet.

“I had declared an ‘emergency over’ status in my apartment where I live with my Turkish boyfriend,” she said. “But then after two weeks, another big earthquake made the walls of our house shake and I understood we’re still not safe.”

Ciucci is from Naples, a city with high seismic alerts. Yet, she said she has never experienced something so frightening in her life. It is the constant fear of not knowing when and what to expect that keeps your nervous system wide awake every night.

Although people had slowly started to move back to their houses, leaving the shelters, tents and cars and returning from the cities they fled to, the realisation that the earth has not stopped moving and that risks are always around the corner is the most unsettling part.

Spending days watching live rescue scenes on TV, messaging friends and relatives to check on them or ask if they also felt what seemed to be aftershock or was it just in the imagination, keeping an eye on alerts from the disaster management agency have all become southern Turkey’s new normal.

“Coming back to what was once our normal life is not easy. I still feel anxious roaming the streets, looking at the buildings if they are cracked or afraid that one of them might fall down on me,” said Kalaji.

“I still can’t sleep in my own bed as every time I see the cracks in my room I get flashbacks from those moments of the earthquake, my eyes keep looking at the light bulbs to see if they move or not, every slight shake makes me alert and stand up if I am laying down.”

All the survivors will need some sort of psychological support for the prolonged exposure to trauma. After the latest quakes, Özyurtkan could not take it any more and will take advantage of one of several free flights available for those from the impacted areas who  want to leave and have relatives in safer areas.

“For two weeks, I tried my best to help people but I eventually realised I had to take care of myself first,” he said. Now that university classes in the affected areas are online, to him, it feels again like the unsettling times of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Everything shut down, the streets are those of a ghost town except, we are not stuck at home.  We have to run away from home. We’re not even left with the only safe place we knew.”

Source: Al Jazeera