Ever since the Feb. 6 earthquake decimated swaths of Turkey and Syria, survivors have gathered outside destroyed houses and apartments, refusing to leave.
Hundreds of buildings were reduced to rubble; ancient buildings lie in ruins; and the streets of Antakya’s historic center were blocked by mounds of debris and furniture, dividing the city into small blocks of apocalyptic destruction. It was the most deadly quake in Turkey’s modern history.
Over 2 million people have left the disaster zone in Turkey, according to the Turkish government. But here in the worst-hit city, hundreds are still waiting. At every corner, a few people look at a pile of rubble, praying for a wife, a sister, a son or a friend.
Yakisikli, a retired cook, was closest to his mother, Fatma. She lived right below him.
He was home when the quake struck. “We were on the third floor, and we just found ourselves on the ground,” he said. His mother’s second floor apartment was deep underground.
Yakisikli and his brothers initially tried to climb the rubble in search of their mother. One caught a glimpse of her head through the debris — she was lifeless, lying on her back.
Unable to free her body, they began a long wait.
“I can’t have peace of mind without burying her,” said Yakisikli, as he watched an excavator claw at the remains of the building behind his home.
The Yakisiklis only slept when the excavators turned off their engines, in a tent pitched in an abandoned school near their former home. There was no water, electricity or toilet in the tent.
“We will not feel good about leaving. We must get her out and bury her and then we see what we have to do,” he said.
The Yakisikli brothers find solace in the company of the living — and the occasional laugh, as they spend the days swapping stories about their travels.
Some of the people waiting hope for a miracle.
On Wednesday, Abdulrizak Dagli and his wife read the Quran and raised their hands to the skies, as they waited for rescuers to retrieve their son and his wife, and a missing grandchild. Their 1-year-old granddaughter was pulled out of the debris alive five days after the earthquake.
Other survivors have refused to move to guard savings, valuable belongings and homes. Some search for documents they hope could help them rebuild the life they knew; others simply look for memories.
“We can’t leave our house,” said Gulsen Donmez, a 46-year-old survivor, leaning back on a plastic chair in a park opposite her damaged house. She left for a few days, but soon rushed back. “There are looters who are taking things from homes. We decided to stay here close to the house so we can go check on it all the time.”
Donmez, her husband, three children and their large dog have slept in a park, first in one of its small food stands, then in an empty kiosk they filled with blankets to keep out the cold.
She held her hands to? a wood burning heater outside the kiosk. With no public toilets, she relieves herself in the open air.
She said she would wait for as long as it takes to get into her home and retrieve what she can. In the meantime, she has applied for a government-issued tent. Being placed in one would make it easier to access organized aid and begin seeking compensation.
But that wait may be long as Turkey struggles to provide shelter for the hundreds of thousands of new homeless.
On Wednesday, volunteers distributed warm meals and hygiene kits. Some gave out flowers to cheer a sad and gloomy city. Municipality workers cleaned the streets, some with large cracks that snaked through the asphalt.
People have set tents up in open spaces, parks or schools. Some residents slept in cars parked near their homes.
Enise Karaali, 69, and her son Haydar have spent some nights in the car outside their former real estate office, crushed by debris, and others in a tent near their home.
“I used to live really well. I lost a good life now to live in a car or a tent,” Enise Karaali, holding a bowl of pasta offered by volunteers as she reminisced about her dining room table and house with a garden.
In his offices, Haydar Karaali had papers that prove people owe him some $100,000. He won’t leave before retrieving them from under the rubble.
“We will wait. We will keep coming and going,” she said.
A few blocks away, silversmith Jan Estefan and his wife used a garden fork and their hands to sift through the rubble. He and his family came out unhurt, but their business, including his silver and collection of ancient coins, were buried.
He asked rescuers to put the rubble to a place where he can sift through it without disrupting their work, and he’s been digging through the pile they made near his shop.
“We must do this if we want to live without relying on anyone,” said Estefan, as he leaned over to inspect a shining object in the dirt. He picked out an old Syrian coin, and put it in a small paper bag his wife was holding.
For the Yakisikli brothers, the wait went on for nearly 230 hours, when finally Fatma Yakisikli was pulled from the rubble. Now, they can bury their mother and being trying to move on.
“There is no more life here. Antakya is destroyed,” he said. “There may be 100,000 funerals.”