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Quake survivors risk their lives to recover belongings from damaged homes

Despite warning from Turkish authorities about possible dangers, earthquake survivors risked returning to their damaged or collapsed homes for one last chance to salvage what they could from their past lives, hours before another deadly 6.4 magnitude quake struck the region earlier this week.

Reuters news agency saw dozens of people climb mounds of rubble, crawl through cracked walls and tread up broken stairs to retrieve documents, furniture and electric appliances — anything that could help them start over.

Government officials, including the disaster management agency AFAD, have been repeatedly warning residents not to return to their damaged homes saying the rubble pose danger to people’s safety.

Two weeks after an initial massive earthquake struck Türkiye and Syria, most residents of Antakya — a district of Hatay province — had left or were sheltering in camps.

When a fresh quake shook the southern city again on Monday, Turkish media reported that at least three people were killed while retrieving belongings.

“We are trying to save whatever we have because the damage is huge,” said Yasir Bayrakci, adding that they do not have enough resources to sustain them or buy new household goods.

His family lost a sister, one of 15 siblings, in the February 6 quake. After finding her body in the rubble six days later, they laid her to rest.

“We cannot bring back the dead. But because we survived, we are trying to get out whatever is left,” said the 28-year-old natural gas pipe welder.

Bayrakci and six relatives returned to help their brother retrieve belongings from his apartment. They packed smaller items in trash bags and fertiliser sacks. Inside, kitchen cabinet doors were flung open, paint had chipped off the walls and the cracked facade had partially fallen out.

Through an open window of the second-floor apartment, now reachable by a mound of rubble from an adjacent building, they hauled a mattress, couches and a washing machine on their backs, trying not to trip on chunks of concrete as they walked in sandals.

“Slowly, slowly,” one person said.

The items will be stored in the family’s house in a village nearby, which Bayrakci believes is safe. “We built it with our hands, so we trust it in every aspect.”

‘Too risky’

In another Antakya neighbourhood, Kinan al Masri hoped to retrieve some savings, passports and birth certificates from his apartment. He has returned to his street every couple of days since the first quake, but authorities told him it was too dangerous to go inside.

There have also been reports of authorities making arrests after spotting people retrieving belongings of other residents.

The purple-tiled complex, which Masri constructed with relatives to house seven families, was damaged but still standing, the planters sitting deceivingly straight on the balconies.

“We invested everything we had in this building. Now, it’s up for demolition,” the 30-year-old translator said.

Though his relatives were all safe, he said he missed the neighbourhood, where most structures along his street were reduced to rubble.

Empty handed

Bilal Ibrahim survived the initial quake with his wife and children, but his brother was killed, he said.

His baby nephew, who was rushed into an ambulance after being pulled out of the rubble, was missing, and Ibrahim had been traveling from one hospital to another to find him.

On Monday, the 34-year-old mechanic was linking up his broken red Suzuki Maruti to his dead brother’s car with a metal wire he found in the debris.

The apartment he and his family had been living in for seven years was slated for demolition, he said, and he could not enter to retrieve anything.

“The most important thing is that my family is safe,” he said, struggling to hold back tears. “Losing my brother, it is as if I have lost the whole world.”

Arsin, who only wanted to be identified by his first name, was stepping down the rubble with his father carrying possessions wrapped in seven bed sheets. At least one makeshift sack was packed with documents he needed for his accounting business.

They were leaving their apartment to stay in university dorms in Mersin, he said. “We are tired.”

Gocan Karadeniz, 33, stood looking at his ground-floor flat in Antakya for the first time since the initial shock. The walls were almost completely exposed so that he could see his dust-covered olive couch flipped on its side.

He had hoped to retrieve some possessions before the authorities demolished the building, he said, but it was too dangerous to enter.

After staring at the building for some minutes, Karadeniz went back in the car and drove away with nothing.

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