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Portrait of a loss

BY MARIE DUPUIS | IZMIR, TURKEY | February 10, 2002

For 17-year-old Yildiz Gulu, Feb. 3 started off like any other Sunday morning. The youngest child of divorced parents, she lived with her aging mother. In hopes being able to attend a well-known university, Gulu, like many other Turkish young people, spent her weekends studying at a prep school.

As she headed out the front door, grabbing fruit and her workbooks on the way, her mother kissed her on the forehead and wished her luck. When a 6.0 earthquake hit, Gulu was on the bus heading home.

In unbelieving, round-eyed horror, she remembers facing the few seconds that followed: The modest one-story houses, businesses and shops that surrounded her wobbled to their knees and then flopped into lifeless rag doll heaps, exhaling powerful sand storms into the air.

Abandoning the useless vehicle, an anxious Gulu wove her way across the heaving earth, between toppling buildings, over crumbled hollow brick mounds, and around panicked citizens. Within minutes, Afyon's fluorescent-orange clad rescue teams responded to Mother Nature's roller coaster ride.

Gulu approached her neighborhood, racing, down the maze of debris, searching for the street and home where she had lived -- looking for the comforting embrace of her mother. But that was not to be. Gulu stared in disbelief at the scattered remains of her former home.

Terrified at the shocking sight that lay before her, she panicked. Onlookers held their breath and hung their heads as she went from face to face looking for hope, but finding instead dread and bitter disappointment in each.

A few broken words told the story of their vain search. Sorrowful neighbors and friends tried to restrain the now hysterical Gulu, but she punched, kicked and screamed for her mother.

"I wanted to go through the rubble and find my mother myself, but they wouldn't let me. I waited there eight hours until they found her body and pulled it out from under the ruins," she recalled.

The next day, following Muslim tradition, her mother was buried. Gulu drifted through the prayer ceremonies at the mosque, while her resentful uncles threatened to strangle her estranged father for his intruding, unwelcome presence at this time of mourning. "I've cried for four days straight," Gulu said. "I have no more tears left to cry. Anywhere I look reminds me of my mother."

Acquaintances and people from the area came to present their condolences and say good-bye to the "angel-like mother."

The nation's loss is represented in this drama that has altered Gulu's life. People call her tragedy the symbol of the February earthquakes. She now stays with her married elder sister, as she attempts to re-direct her future and overcome the heavy grief that this sudden catastrophe has brought into her world.

Last week's earthquake in Turkey -- though not as catastrophic as 1999's temblor that killed 18,000 people -- was nonetheless a disaster for scores of families. Yildiz Gulu's mother was among 45 people who were killed.

Faith-based disaster response organizations including the United Church of Christ American Board for World Mission are offering post-traumatic stress counseling for families in need.

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