Posters with missing people on a window of a food distribution in Atakya, Turkey, in Turkey’s Hatay Province, which was badly hit by the March 3, 2023 earthquake. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)
NARLICA, Turkey — When a powerful earthquake struck southern Turkey last month, a lawyer concluded her relatives had been buried in the rubble of their collapsed home.
Three days later, rescue workers recovered the bodies of her mother and brother, she said, but days, then weeks, then a month passed without her father being seen. His disappearance has plunged them into a terrible mystery facing families across the earthquake zone whose loved ones are still missing.
“I can’t find my father anywhere in the world — not under the rubble, not in the hospitals, nowhere,” said Syrian-born lawyer Mervat Nasri.
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Five weeks after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake and powerful aftershock struck southern Turkey and killed 47,000 people, many others remain missing, making the entire toll even more ambiguous and leaving families in an agonizing limbo. More than 6,000 people were also killed across the border in northern Syria.
Turkish authorities have provided little information on how many people are missing, making the scope unclear. One clue is the number of unidentified bodies buried in cemeteries. Ahmet Hilal, a professor of forensic medicine at Cukurova University in Adana, said his research in the affected area revealed there were currently about 1,470.
Recent interviews with experts, survivors and officials involved in the recovery effort revealed chaos in the first days of the disaster, with injured people rushed to distant hospitals where they may have died unbeknownst to their loved ones, and unidentified bodies hastily buried were saved because rescuers didn’t have space to store them.
In the weeks since, Turkish authorities have begun using fingerprints, DNA tests and photos to try to link unidentified bodies to their next of kin.
One branch of that effort is on a rocky plot in Narlica, a town in Hatay province, one of the areas most damaged by the quake. One day police officers and prosecutors were working in metal shipping containers used as earthquake-proof shelters. A stream of families passed, hoping to find traces of missing loved ones.
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Police were gathering the names of missing relatives and checking a database to see if they had been found elsewhere. Families who found matches were given death certificates, photographs taken prior to the burial of their loved ones, and the cemetery names and grave numbers where they were buried.
Those whose names weren’t in the system watched on a big screen while police scrolled through hundreds of photos of unidentified bodies, many of whom were disfigured, hoping to see a face they recognized.
Some families got away with nothing. They gave blood for DNA testing, which was matched to samples from unidentified bodies before the funeral.
“I checked more than 150 photos. I couldn’t take it anymore,” Suheyl Avci said after exiting the container to smoke a cigarette. “My brother is going on now.”
More than two dozen of her relatives were killed in the quake, he said, but he’s still looking for an aunt. He’d heard a rumor that a woman by her name had been pulled alive from the rubble, but he hadn’t been able to find her.
Other families received painful confirmations of loss.
“He was like a mountain, my son,” exclaimed Makbule Karadeniz, 62, after recognizing her dead son Sait, 35, in the photos.
The February 6 quake destroyed hundreds of thousands of buildings in southern Turkey, ruined some hospitals, overwhelmed others and caused chaos that made it easy for loved ones to lose each other.
After the quake, 27-year-old Sakine Nur Gul navigated through a snowstorm and roads clogged with emergency vehicles to reach her family’s building in the city of Antakya, eventually arriving 19 hours after the collapse, she said.
Assuming her relatives were buried inside, she waited by the rubble while rescue workers dug for bodies and survivors, she said. But when they reached the basement on the sixth day, they had not found their relatives.
So she began a painful, week-long odyssey to find her mother, father and brother, who were among 28 people missing from the same building.
Thinking they could have been pulled out alive shortly after the quake, she visited hospitals and cemeteries across the area and donated blood in hopes their DNA would lead to a match.
Early on, she said, she found sprawling new, numbered graves, but no one to explain who was buried where, she said. Some hospitals have refused to show her photos of unidentified patients in their intensive care units, citing privacy concerns.
As the search dragged on, her missing brother and father’s birthdays passed, she said. Nine days after the quake, her father’s bank sent his final automatic mortgage payment on the family’s defunct home.
She struggles to maintain hope that they are still alive while feeling unable to grieve until she is certain they are dead.
“How long do we have to wait?” She said.
Previous earthquakes in Turkey left many people missing. An earthquake near Istanbul in 1999 killed more than 18,000 people. To date, 5,840 are officially listed as missing, most are said to have been buried without identification. They are not included in the death toll.
Around 5,000 unidentified people were buried across the quake zone after last month’s quake, said Hilal, a professor of forensic medicine. But in the weeks that followed, he said, that number dropped to about 1,470 because many of the buried bodies were identified through DNA comparisons and other methods.
People could have disappeared in different ways, Hilal said. Overwhelmed rescue workers buried bodies before identifying them, although in most cases they collected photos, fingerprints or blood. Others may have been charred by fires in the rubble, making identification difficult, he said.
Other remains may have been accidentally dragged away when the debris was removed, Hilal said, but that’s unlikely because many people waited near buildings until their relatives were found.
In the end, Hilal said he expected the number of missing to be lower than it was in 1999, when the state could not perform DNA matching and not as many Turkish citizens and residents had fingerprints.
But for many families, uncertainty persists.
In the days after the quake, Reema Baliqji and her two sons were rescued from the rubble of their building, she said, and the bodies of her husband and younger daughter were recovered. But their older daughter, Fariyal Idris, 17, was missing, as was a 15-year-old girl from another family, who was rescued and taken away in an ambulance.
At the shipping containers in Narlica, police found records of her husband and younger daughter, prepared death certificates, and gave her the locations and numbers of their lots in a sprawling new cemetery nearby. She also received a surprise: the grave of a niece with the same surname, who was not even known to the family, was missing.
But there was still no trace of her older daughter.
“We’ll wait and see what happens,” Baliqji said.
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