On the Ground in Türkiye: By Steve Smith

On the Ground in Türkiye: By Steve Smith

“At 7.8 on the Richter scale, some of the buildings came down in six seconds. At 4:17 a.m., while people were asleep in their beds, the first earthquake lasted for 90 seconds.” Of all the things I saw, heard, and felt on my recent visit to Kahramanmaraş, those words impacted me the most.
– Steve Smith, Airlink President & CEO

I was in Istanbul last week for the IATA World Cargo Symposium. While there, I took the opportunity to meet with our partner, the Turkish Red Crescent (Türk Kızılay), and to visit the epicenter of the recent earthquakes that struck Türkiye and Syria. 

The visit was profoundly moving and showed in very clear and stark terms just how critical the aid that Airlink moves is and how important it is to support our NGO partners. All of us involved in the Airlink mission -staff, donors, and supporters- really do make a difference in people’s lives in the aftermath of disasters. Even now, a week after my visit, it is hard to truly get across all the emotions I felt while there. 

It has been almost months since the earthquakes struck Türkiye. The first thing my colleague Cindy Rocha and I noticed when we arrived in Kahramanmaraş was that most of the rubble and debris had by now been cleared away, leaving little behind to indicate that just a few months ago this was a bustling, busy town and home to thousands of people.

Eerily silent and hauntingly calm, as I stood in what was a busy main street, it was not unlike one of those scenes from an apocalyptic movie. Only recently, thousands of people had been living lives just like yours and mine, going to work, running businesses, taking kids to school, buying groceries, and now it was all gone—nothing but an open landscape, dust, and flat eerie calmness.       

Our guides from the Turkish Red Crescent explained that what happened was really a two-earthquake story. The first earthquake struck while people were asleep; the second struck nine hours later as people tried to retrieve their belongings. I was told that at the 7.8 magnitude, it takes just six seconds for a building to come down; the first earthquake lasted for over 90 seconds.

Our guides then explained that in one building with 1,500 people in it, only 15-20 came out. One sad story we heard from a responder working for the Turkish Red Crescent (TRC) was that when she arrived on the scene, she was wearing a TRC outfit, so everyone expected her to give them aid, but she had nothing to give. We then learned that no help came from neighboring cities as they were on the same fault line and were also destroyed.  

What was notable about our partners at TRC is that they stayed in exactly the same conditions as the people they helped. There are no special facilities or living arrangements for them. They say this helps to ‘connect’ with the people they are supporting and what they were going through.

One group that often gets forgotten about in disasters is children. The stress, fear, and obliteration of their world, and all the frames of reference that provide stability and reassurance, take a toll hard to fully comprehend but easy to imagine. Cindy and I met local children in one of the tented camps. Psychosocial support for these children was a critical need. Initially, the kids in the camps drew pictures of damaged buildings, clearly destraught by what they had been through. Over time they started using more colors, drawing trees and new buildings as they began to grapple with what had happened. As a father of three, I found this to be heartbreaking. 

Another thought that struck me as I met people within the camps, which all have armed guards,  is that while humans may have simplified their lives through technology, in a post-disaster environment, it is the seemingly simple things that become the most complex. Talking to local people, one issue was raised again and again -namely, cash. With no electricity, no banks, and no functioning payment technology, life is reduced to a cash existence. I can’t remember the last time I carried cash. How many of us have sufficient cash on hand to purchase supplies for our family over days, weeks, and months? Let alone if our jobs and livelihoods had just been wiped out. To address this, we learned about the TRC’s cash assistance program that supports thousands of families. Time and again, you realize it is these seemingly little things, in the aftermath of a disaster, that change your existence. It is something no amount of news coverage can or will help you comprehend when watching disasters unfold from afar. 

Having an opportunity to meet local people in the camps was in many ways a privilege. Their resilience, friendliness, and openness were extraordinary. But the level of need and the task ahead to fulfill those is a monumental one. TRC is handling nutritional programs and at their peak, were feeding 1.7m people three meals a day. AFAD, the Turkish aid ministry, is handling all shelters. Currently, the city’s population lives in thermal tents, but they aim to move people to container camps – a program they had started just before our visit. This will enable people to start making their own meals inside the containers, something impossible inside the tents for obvious reasons. 

We often make the case that Airlink is committed to communities long after the news cameras and much of the public interest are gone. We continue and will continue to provide assistance to our NGO partners, helping to address the needs of people in Türkiye. It is vital work. 

Of all the emotions I felt during the field visit to the earthquake’s epicenter, the one that remains uppermost is gratitude. I have been and remain grateful to lead an organizations that is in a position to help people impacted by disasters and to be part of an industry and community of that which always answers the call to help others.   

I’d like to thank our partner, the Turkish Red Crescent, for arranging and leading the visit, and I want to thank our airline partners and donors who support Airlink, our crucial mission, and the communities in Türkiye and Syria. Everything you do makes a difference.  

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