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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

With fingerprints, DNA and photos, Turkey seeks families of the missing

Sakine Nur Gul, who is searching for several missing members of her family, in Ceyhan, Turkey, March 3, 2023.

By Ben Hubbard and Safak Timur

When a powerful earthquake struck southern Turkey last month, a lawyer concluded that her relatives had been buried in the rubble of their collapsed apartment.

Three days later, rescue workers recovered the bodies of her mother and brother, she said, but days, then weeks, then a month passed with no sign of her father. His disappearance plunged her into a terrifying mystery faced by families across the quake 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, not anywhere,” said the lawyer, Mervat Nasri, who is from Syria.

Five weeks after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake and a powerful aftershock struck southern Turkey, killing 47,000 people, many others remain unaccounted for, adding ambiguity to the complete toll 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 scant information about how many people are missing, making the scope unclear. One indication 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 afflicted area found that there were currently about 1,470.

Recent interviews with experts, survivors and officials involved in the recovery efforts indicated chaos in the disaster’s first days, with injured people dispatched to faraway hospitals where they may have died without their relatives’ knowledge, and unidentified bodies hastily buried because rescue workers had no place to store them.

In the weeks since, Turkish authorities have begun using fingerprints, DNA tests and photographs to try to link unidentified bodies with their next of kin.

One branch of that effort is in a rocky lot in Narlica, a town in Hatay province, one of the areas most heavily damaged by the quake. On a recent day, police officers and prosecutors worked in metal shipping containers, which have been used as quake-proof shelters. A stream of families came by, hoping to find traces of missing loved ones.

Police recorded the names of missing relatives and checked a database to see if they had been found elsewhere. Families that found matches received death certificates, photographs taken before their relatives were buried, and the cemetery names and grave numbers where they had been laid to rest.

Those whose relatives’ names were not in the system watched a large screen as the police scrolled through hundreds of photographs of unidentified bodies, many of them disfigured, hoping to see a face they recognized.

Some families came away with nothing. They gave blood for DNA tests that would be cross-checked with samples taken from unidentified bodies before burial.

Other families received painful confirmations of loss.

“He was like a mountain, my son,” cried Makbule Karadeniz, 62, after recognizing her dead son Sait, 35, in the photographs.

The quake Feb. 6 destroyed hundreds of thousands of buildings across southern Turkey, ruining some hospitals, overwhelming others and creating chaos that made it easy for relatives to lose one another.

After the quake, Sakine Nur Gul, 27, navigated a blizzard and roads clogged with emergency vehicles to reach her family’s building in the city of Antakya, finally arriving 19 hours after it had collapsed, she said.

Assuming her relatives were entombed inside, she waited by the rubble as rescue workers dug for bodies and survivors, she said. But when they reached the basement on the sixth day, they had not found her relatives.

So she began a painful, weekslong 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 soon after the quake, she visited hospitals and graveyards throughout the area and gave blood in the hope that her DNA would lead to a match.

Early on, she said, she found sprawling expanses of new, numbered graves but no one to explain who was buried where, she said. Some hospitals refused to show her photographs of unidentified patients in their intensive care units, citing privacy concerns.

As the search dragged on, the birthdays of her missing brother and father passed, she said. Nine days after the quake, her father’s bank sent his last automatic mortgage payment for the family’s now nonexistent apartment.

She has struggled to maintain hope that they are still alive, while feeling unable to grieve until she is sure they are dead.

“How long are we going to have to wait?” she said.

Previous earthquakes in Turkey left many people unaccounted for. More than 18,000 people were killed in a quake near Istanbul in 1999. To this day, 5,840 are officially still missing, most believed to have been interred without being identified. They are not included in the death toll.

After last month’s quake, around 5,000 unidentified people were buried across the quake zone, said Hilal, the professor of forensic medicine. But in the weeks since, he said, that number has gone down to around 1,470 because many of the buried bodies have been identified through DNA matches and other methods.

People could have disappeared in different ways, Hilal said. Overwhelmed rescue workers buried bodies before they were identified, although in most cases, they collected photographs, fingerprints or blood. Others could have been charred by fires in the rubble, making identification difficult, he said.

In the end, Hilal said he expected the number of missing people to be lower than in 1999, when the state could not match DNA and did not have fingerprints for as many Turkish citizens and residents.

But for many families, the uncertainty continues.

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