60 seconds of terror (Testimony)

When devastating earthquakes struck Turkey and Syria, killing thousands on Monday, Olga Borzenkova, spokeswoman for the UN migration agency (IOM), was in Gaziantep, Turkey, l one of the most affected regions. She describes her experience and the ongoing emergency response effort.

“Like hundreds of thousands of other people in southeastern Turkey, I was sleeping soundly when the world began to shake. I don’t really know how to describe it to someone who has never felt an earthquake, let alone one of the largest ever recorded in this area.

It’s just completely surreal. The floor and the walls shook, bowed, and as we descended the three floors to the street, our only thought was to get far, far away from the buildings.

It was sixty seconds of the worst terror I have ever felt. As we calmed down a bit and realized we had survived the shaking, we also realized that it was raining, we were cold and our legs were like jelly, like they weren’t really part of us body. Everyone around us was screaming, screaming.

A sadness stronger than words

It took us some time but finally we found a place to shelter after the emergency of the second earthquake, in a school. Along with hundreds of others, we sat, lay or stood on the basketball court, letting our families know we were safe.

Then I got in touch with work and started to assess how I could help, how I could tell them what was going on, how to honor the wonderful people who were doing all they could to help me , as well as the thousands of people like me.

We spent Monday night in a government-run shelter. We felt a few tremors but it was comfortable: We had hot drinks and food, and a place to sleep.

Now I’m in the office catching up, including the heartbreaking news that we’ve lost a colleague. Others are injured and have lost family members and, in some cases, their homes. Others, like my team member, just miraculously survived Hatay.

It’s a sadness stronger than words. One minute we were sleeping and the next we were experiencing one of the biggest disasters on the planet.

I scream inside – out of desperation, grief and fear. But I look at my colleagues, my neighbors and my friends, who are much more affected than me, and they inspire me to move forward.

Massive shelter needs

Turkey is, of course, extremely prone to earthquakes and has a first class response mechanism in place. We have worked with them for over 30 years and they are phenomenal partners. But even they are going to be overwhelmed by this. It’s a double whammy: The area hardest hit by the earthquake hosts more than a million people who fled the war in Syria and who benefit from temporary protected status.

We are in discussions with the government to see how we can best help. In all situations like this, the first need is search and rescue, and I know teams are pouring into the country from all over the world to help.

There are of course going to be massive shelter needs – thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people will be homeless and the weather is freezing. They will need a place to sleep in the short term, warm clothes, water, food, heating… There will be trauma and crush injuries. There are going to be huge mental scars.

Communities have been devastated: schools and hospitals damaged, workplaces destroyed. Aid logistics are going to be hellish – roads and tracks are going to have to be repaired quickly. This is going to be a huge rescue, response and recovery operation and we are ready to respond in as many ways as the government asks of us, for as long as it takes.”

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