ANTAKYA, Turkey (AP) — When war broke out in Ukraine, Aydin Sisman’s relatives there fled to the ancient city of Antakya, in southeastern Turkey bordering Syria.
They may have escaped one disaster, but another found them in a new home.
They were staying with Sisman’s Ukrainian mother-in-law when their building collapsed last Monday when a 7.8-magnitude earthquake flattened much of Antakya and ravaged the region in what some in Turkey are calling the disaster of the century.
“We have Ukrainian guests who fled the war, and they are also lying inside. We had no contact.” said Sisman, whose Turkish father-in-law was also trapped under the rubble of the ten-year-old apartment building.
As rescuers dug through piles of rubble, Sisman seemed to have given up hope.
Millions of refugees, like Sisman’s relatives, have found refuge in Turkey, fleeing wars and local conflicts from countries close to Syria to Afghanistan.
There are at least 3.6 million Syrians who have fled the war in their homeland since 2011, arriving in trickles or en masse, sometimes crossing the border, to seek safety from punishing bombings, chemical attacks and starvation. Over 300,000 others came to escape their own conflicts and hardships, according to the United Nations.
For them, the earthquake was just the latest tragedy – one that many are still too shocked to comprehend.
“This is the biggest disaster we’ve seen, and we’ve seen a lot,” said Yehia Sayed Ali, 25, a student whose family moved to Antakya six years ago to escape Syria’s war at its height.
His mother, two cousins and another cousin died in the earthquake. On Saturday, he sat outside his collapsed two-story building and waited for rescuers to help him dig out their bodies.
“Not a single Syrian family has lost a relative, a loved one” in this earthquake, said Ahmad Abu Shaar, who ran a shelter for Syrian refugees in Antakya that is now a pile of rubble.
Abu Shaar said people were searching for their loved ones and many refused to leave Antakya even though the earthquake left the city without housing, electricity, water or heat. Many sleep on the streets or in the shadows of broken buildings.
“People are still living in shock. No one could have imagined this,” said Abu Shaar.
Certainly not Sisman, who flew from Qatar to Turkey with his wife to help find his in-laws and their Ukrainian relatives.
“Right now, my mother-in-law and father-in-law are inside. They are under the rubble… There were no rescue teams. I climbed alone, looked and walked. I saw the bodies and we pulled them out from under the rubble. Some without a head,” he said.
Construction workers surveying the rubble told Sisman that while the top of the building is solid, the garage and foundation are not as solid.
“When they collapsed, the building was leveled,” said a shaken Sisman. He seemed to accept that his relatives would not make it out alive.
Overwhelmed by the trauma, Abdulqader Barakat stood desperately begging for international help to save his children trapped under the concrete in Antakya.
“There are four. We took two out, and two are still (inside) for hours. We hear their voices and they respond. We need (rescue) squads,” he said.
In a Syrian shelter, Mohammed Aloolo sat in a circle surrounded by his children who had escaped from a building that swayed and finally folded like an accordion.
He came to Antakya in May from a refugee camp along the Turkish-Syrian border. He survived artillery shelling and fighting in his hometown in Syria’s central Hama province, but called his survival in the earthquake a miracle.
Other relatives were not so lucky. Two nieces and their families were left under the rubble, he said, holding back tears.
“I don’t wish this on anyone. I can’t say anything to describe this,” Aloolo said.
Scenes of despair and mourning can be found across a region that just days before was a peaceful haven for those fleeing war and conflict.
At a cemetery in the town of Elbistan, about 200 miles (320 kilometers) north of Antakya, a Syrian family wept and prayed as they buried one of their own. Naziha Al-Ahmad, a mother of four, was pulled dead from the rubble of their new home. Two of her daughters were seriously injured, including one who lost her toes.
“My wife was good, very good. Affectionate, kind, good woman, God bless her soul,” said Ahmad Al-Ahmad. “The neighbors died and we died with them.”
Graves are filling up fast.
At the border with Turkey and Syria, people put the body bags into a truck that was waiting to take the remains to Syria for burial in their homeland. Among them was the body of Khaled Qazqouz’s 5-year-old niece, Tasneem Qazqouz.
Tasneem and her father died when the earthquake hit the border town of Kirikhan.
“We pulled her out from under the destruction, from under the rocks. The whole building fell down,” Qazqouz said. “We worked for three days to get her out.”
Qazqouz signed his niece’s name on the body bag before sending her into a truck headed for Syria.
He prayed as he let her go.
“Say hello to your dad and tell him my wishes. Say hello to your grandfather and uncle and all,” he shouted. “Between the destruction and the ruins, now we have nothing. Life has become so difficult.”
Titova reported from Elbistan, Turkey, and Abuelgasim from Cilvegozu, Turkey. Sarah El Deeb, an Associated Press writer in Antakya, contributed to this report.