Chinese Teams in Turkey: Rescue Over but Relief Will Take Years
For 20 hours in freezing temperatures, Zhang Saixiao searched ceaselessly beneath the rubble of several collapsed buildings in the city of Malatya in eastern Turkey. And when it finally seemed like she’d finally found survivors, it took immense willpower not to celebrate.
The 40-year-old knew from years of training and experience in disaster rescue that finding signs of life was only the first step. Working amid infrastructure completely razed to the ground, Zhang and her team of 10, all from China’s eastern Zhejiang province, often needed six to seven hours of digging and pulling away debris to rescue trapped residents.
In the tense days that followed, her team, working from Feb. 9 to Feb. 14, managed to rescue two people trapped under the debris. In the weeklong search, Zhang’s team also helped recover 25 bodies. “If only we arrived one day earlier, more may have survived,” she told Sixth Tone over the phone.
They were part of a rescue effort comprising more than 100 people that the Chinese civilian organization Blue Sky Rescue sent to Turkey in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that struck the region early on Feb. 6.
The 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck southern Turkey early on Feb. 6 and was followed by a second one with a magnitude of 7.5 a few hours later. Tremors were felt in nearby countries, including Syria and Lebanon. And as 120 aftershocks of various magnitudes shook the region in the days that followed, the death toll climbed past 41,000.
The World Health Organization has called it “the worst natural disaster” in the European region in a century.
As the world pledged to help, China was among the first, offering aid, equipment, and personnel. While the government announced 40 million yuan ($5.8 million) in aid, official estimates suggest that nearly 300 personnel, both sent by the government and from independent organizations such as Blue Sky Rescue and Ramunion, have joined the rescue effort.
For Huang Haihui, another member of the Blue Sky Rescue team, it was his first time on an overseas mission. He said the language barrier, large scale of operations, and severe weather conditions were the main challenges.
“The temperature is consistently around minus 10 degrees Celsius. Also, the scale of the search and evacuation effort is enormous. We could only rely on body language to communicate due to the lack of interpreters. Both slowed our work down,” he told Sixth Tone.
To add to the devastation, rescue teams are short-handed too. Huang said that a team of 30 needed one full day to search the rubble of one collapsed building. “In the city we are working in, there are more than 300 collapsed buildings,” he said.
Chinese civil rescue teams have been prepared to start operations quickly ever since the surge in independent social organizations during the past decade. But China’s lessons for disaster rescue were learned the hard way.
The year 2008, when the Wenchuan earthquake in the southwestern Sichuan province killed nearly 70,000, is generally considered as the “first year” for the development of civil charity in China.
The tragedy inspired a growing number of NGOs and independent teams ever since. This, in turn, has facilitated quicker responses to disasters that followed, including the Ya’an earthquake in 2013, the Henan floods in 2021, and the Sichuan mountain fires in 2022.
Chinese living in Turkey are also lending a helping hand. Ren Shaohuai, an art history PhD student at Istanbul University, said he only felt small tremors in Istanbul. He recalls feeling stunned after finding out from a news report that the whole city of Antakya, the capital of Hatay province in the south, was flattened.
“I broke down after learning the news. I have been to the city twice and like it a lot for its lovely people and delicious food,” Ren told Sixth Tone. He quickly joined the rescue teams supported by the China Foundation for Rural Development and a Chinese commerce organization in Turkey organizing rescue efforts on Feb. 9.
Ren said he only slept three hours each day, and was busy with tasks such as inventorying the supplies that were needed, communicating with local governments, purchasing and ferrying supplies, and distributing food for eight villages in the county.
Two weeks after the earthquake, the rescue mission in Turkey is coming to an end. But for locals, the reconstruction and rehabilitation have just begun.
“Antakya won’t be the same again. We will need at least 30 years to rebuild the city,” Ren heard one of the locals saying outside his collapsed home. The resident also told Ren that several relatives were buried among the ruins.
“The rescue ends within seven to 10 days, but relief will take years,” said Sheena Zhao, a volunteer in an online rescue service group.
For Chinese volunteers, the experience also left an indelible mark. Along with her peers, Zhang Saixiao is finally on her way back home to Ningbo in Zhejiang province where she earns a living selling seafood online. Similar to her colleagues in Blue Sky, she only works as a medical rescuer during emergencies.
Waiting for her at home in China is her daughter, her husband, and a life with the same daily chores. But now, something is different.
“Going to Turkey on my first overseas rescue mission was certainly a life-changing experience. It allowed me to think about the meaning of life again,” she said.
Despite the exhausting work, Ren said he was moved by the humanity people showed in the face of such a disaster. Back at his home in Istanbul, he recalled warm scenes when locals thanked Chinese rescuers with food and affectionate hugs.
When Ren was shopping for supplies, a cashier at the market showed him his phone. It read: “Welcome to our country, may God bless you” in Chinese, translated from Turkish.
“I witnessed humanity between people in this experience. The kindness, mutual help, and love transcend race, nationality, language, and religion,’ Ren said. “If time allows, I will volunteer for reconstruction projects as well.”
(Header image: A local resident hugs a Chinese volunteer at Baldıran Village in Hatay, Turkey, Feb. 12, 2023. Courtesy of Ren Shaohuai)