I had been shaken off the couch I was sleeping on, like crumbs off a picnic tablecloth.
Last week in Turkey a
quake west of Istanbul measured 4.1. Two more to the
east reached 4.8. Another shook Izmir. And the most
major damage was psychological.
Two and a half years after some 18,000 people died in
two massive earthquakes that struck Turkey, many still
live with fear.
Within hours after the first of the 1999 quakes, faith-
based disaster response groups launched a relief effort
that efficiently funneled compassion and financial
support from the U.S. and many other countries. Church
World Service, Action by Churches Together (ACT), and
many denominational groups worked with local partners in
Turkey to offer shelter, food, water, and medical
They also offered spiritual care, with many local
partners continuing to do so. And many people in Turkey
report that ministry is still badly needed.
The temblor that rocked Turkey in the wee hours of Aug.
17, 1999 was more than four hundred times the force of
the atomic explosions that hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki in
1945 the same month. Fishermen off the coast of Turkey's
Marmara province said they saw an underwater volcanic
eruption. The disturbance caused by the sudden buildup
of lava created destructive tidal waves that slammed
down on Golcuk -- a town 150 kilometers southeast of
Istanbul -- and that drew back with them all sections of
the city built on land reclaimed from the sea.
Some 700 kilometers away, the shake roared through fault
lines in the Aegean region, rocking creaky apartment
buildings and spilling panicked inhabitants into the
Twenty-three-year-old Kaan Yildiz said he still doesn't
sleep well. "Nighttime is my nightmare," said the Izmit
resident. "The frightening, scrunching glass sound of
breaking windowpanes is still in my ears. I get jittery
and I'm afraid of the dark, because that's when the
terror that still floods my dreams and haunts my waking
hours hit us."
His fiancee, 22-year-old Gulden Yildirm, said Yildiz has
been dealing with the emotional aftermath for a long
time. "When I first met him in November of 1999, a
passing bus vibration on the road was enough to send him
into a frenzy of acute fear. Due to the uninterrupted
replay running in his mind's eye, he didn't have a calm,
Yildiz remembered that the quake struck during hazelnut
harvesting season. "My mother Emine and I had gone to
our 3-and-a-half acre village property in Derbent,
approximately 30 kilometers from Izmit. Since it was
closer to his workplace, my father Bekir, an accountant,
had chosen to remain at our fourth floor apartment in
town. My eldest sister Hava, a married housewife, lived
in the capital city Ankara and my older brother Ferit
was in Giresun, 16 bus hours away, doing his military
After a day of nut picking Yildiz and some of his
relatives went to their traditional two-story stone home
in the village. They went to sleep around midnight.
"About three hours later, I was startled out of a sound
sleep when my body hit the rough ground with a thud. I
had been shaken off the couch I was sleeping on, like
crumbs off a picnic tablecloth," remembered Yildiz. "The
earth beneath me had turned into a rocking cradle whose
vigorous swinging brought everything within reach to a
terrific tumble-crash crescendo of noise."
Groggy and disoriented, Yildiz didn't understand what
was happening and thought the world had come to an end.
"All at once, a distinct tone reached out and gripped
me, jolting me to my feet and propelling me towards the
door. It was the urgency of my mother's high-pitched,
In between wails and shrieks, his mother was shouting,
"Oh my God! It's the end of the world! Judgement day has
Yildiz said his mother then realized what was going on.
"She hollered at us, 'Earthquake! Quick! Everyone out.' "
Rushing toward the sound of her voice, Yildiz ran
straight into the door, which was normally always kept
open. "The quake's first wave had slammed and jammed it
shut," said Yildiz. "While pounding on it in my
desperation to get to my mother, the next second's shake
liberated it from its tight squeeze, and swung me with
it right into the wall.
"I dashed to where my mother was bellowing prayers over
the din and helped her get my eighty-five year old
grandmother out of the house to safety. Clinging to each
other as we scrambled into the garden, a blinding light
shattered the darkness of the night sky."
Yildiz later learned that this phenomenon was due to the
continuous explosions of gas pipes buried under the
ocean. "The indistinguishable brilliance illuminated the
countryside, even though we were over fifty kilometers
away from the coast. In our orchard, the elements seemed
to have swapped places. The firm, stony ground we were
used to treading tossed and reeled about under our feet,
as if we were walking the surface of a stormy, wind-
swept sea. Confusion and tension tore at our souls with
an iron hand. All our thoughts, worries, and prayers now
focused on my father."
Yildiz didn't know if his father was dead or alive. "I
was so frightened that my fingers and feet were
trembling uncontrollably. In between tremors, one of my
brave aunts dashed into the house to grab the phone and
a radio. Deep shock found us on our feet for what
remained of the night, alternating between phone calls
and listening to the radio, while the ground continued
its ceremonious shake, rattle, and roll display of
Around noon the next day, relief washed over the family
as Yildiz's father - dumbfounded by the destruction that
swept the neighborhood he had spent the last 40 years in
-- stumbled into their arms. It had taken him more than
seven hours to reach his family -- normally a 15-minute
It was a bittersweet rejoicing as Yildiz's family slowly
realized how many lives were lost.
Yildiz said his father also still feels the emotional
aftereffects of the quake. His father remembers flying
out of bed when the commotion first started and diving
to the doorframe of his room, where he stayed for 15
minutes. "Calling out to relatives on the various floors
beneath, he made sure that the stairs hadn't caved in
and then inched his way down, holding onto the iron
railing for dear life," said Yildiz. "At that same
moment, the fifth floor roof caved in and sent tiles
crashing down in every direction. By a miracle, not a
single one harmed my father, though this whole
experience has left him very shaken up emotionally. To
this day, the word earthquake does not pass his lips and
he refuses to talk about what befell him that night."
Izmit is home to most of Turkey's natural gas
refineries. The quake caused many explosions, remembered
"The whole city and its surrounding villages could have
blown up, and most everybody in the Marmara province
would have died, if it hadn't been for the help of
German rescue helicopters and pilots who worked for
three or four days alongside Turkish troops to master
this incredible danger."
A couple days later, oil-filled black rain began pelting
the entire region. "And it wasn't just a slight drizzle
either," said Yildiz. "It was equal to being the
unfortunate ant on the receiving end of a dumped out,
bottomless cold cup of tea. Our grounds turned into
liquid mud swamps and whatever had been rescued from the
clutches of the earthquake was affected and ruined:
quilts, personal belongings, crops, animals. We
abandoned the plastic covering used for shelter until
now in favor of the 6-square-meter aluminum nut-sorting
"We sat in there like dumb sheep waiting for slaughter,
having no sense of time, hunger, nor other common needs.
My mother, a firm believer in work therapy for
overcoming psychological wounds, tried to urge us out of
our depression by three or four hours of daily nut-
picking, but we were too uptight to give her efforts a
Three weeks later, Yildiz dared a venture into town.
"Fifty-six people died in the building next to us.
Rescue teams were still digging up corpses and bringing
them in blankets to the mosque for prayer and burial.
Our apartment stood in shambles and junk was strewn
everywhere, making it look like a thief had turned the
place upside down in his search for something precious."
Dashing in between tremors, Yildiz grabbed some clean
clothes, stuffed them in a bag, and then ran out.
"Twenty or twenty-five days later, my mother was brave
enough to risk sleeping in our village home. My father
and I preferred the safety of tents, sent to us by the
kindness of his boss in Ankara, which we pitched near
the chicken coops."
Everyday, Yildiz's father would go to work and then come
back to the village.
Then there was a severe aftershock measuring 5.3 on the
"I was working in the garden with my mother, when the
ground went sliding from under my feet. My mother looked
like she was in a hammock, through she was sitting cross-
legged on the floor."
Yildiz's father was just stepping out of his workplace
when the building across the street went down in one
take -- all five floors of it.
"That was the most traumatic instance for him," said
Yildiz. "My father said, 'If only I had come out moments
later when the building was already flattened! I
wouldn't have had to see the young man run in to rescue
his family.' "
When Yildiz's eldest sister, Hava, came with her husband
from Ankara one month later, it was a very emotional
"Besides the ghastly sights, many bodies hadn't been
reached yet and were steadily decomposing under the
rubble. The reek of death permeated the whole area."
Yildiz's sister and brother in law, seeing the strain
the family was under, invited him to travel away with
them. "I entered a house for the first time 86 days
after the Aug. 17 quake. I was restless and didn't sleep
until the 6 a.m. morning prayers."
Earlier this month, Yildiz was travelling from Izmir to
Ankara to visit his sister. "At 5 a.m., we passed Afyon.
At 9:11, a 6.0 earthquake hit. Wherever I go,
earthquakes seem to follow. Today, just the thought of
one is enough to render me senseless. I continue to pray
for them not to happen.
"Time has been a great healing factor. Though it cannot
change the past, it helps to soothe the pain and reminds
us that life goes on with much to look forward to."
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