South African rescuers – and sniffer dogs – bring hope amid the sorrow to Turkey survivors

South African rescuers – and sniffer dogs – bring hope amid the sorrow to Turkey survivors
Rescuers from Gift of the Givers in Turkey. (Photo: Gift of the Givers)

Search-and-rescue teams from Gift of the Givers and the South African Police Service worked tirelessly to provide aid to earthquake victims.

The scale of destruction that the Turkey-Syria earthquake left in its wake is massive. In Antakya – the capital of Hatay Province, the southernmost province of Turkey – a whole generation has been almost wiped out. The survivors’ lives have changed forever.

Between 8 and 15 February, a South African team of 47 search-and-rescue professionals, made up of Gift of the Givers volunteers and South African Police Service (SAPS) K9 search-and-rescue personnel, was on the ground in Antakya, working to recover survivors and bodies.

“The challenging aspect was mostly the huge magnitude of destruction… it’s a city that’s housing millions of people and the smallest building is about five to six storeys,” explained Ahmed Bham, head of the Gift of the Givers team.

“You can imagine at 4.30 in the morning, when this earthquake struck, everyone was in their houses… and then over 2,000, 3,000 buildings collapsed; massive structures. Challenges are finding the survivors in the massive rubble.”

The 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck on 6 February, and the death toll has passed 41,000, with Turkish authorities estimating that 35,418 people have been killed in the country, while the Syrian government and the United Nations say more than 5,800 people have died in Syria, according to Al Jazeera.



Brigadier Vimla Moodley, leader of the SAPS K9 team and provincial head of the Eastern Cape Police Emergency Services, described retrieving four bodies from a seven-storey building that had fallen on its side, for a mother who refused to leave the site until her family members had been found.

“Our main purpose here was to come and assist in the search and recovery of live victims or bodies. We were hoping we could get as many live people as possible. Unfortunately, there were more deceased than live persons,” Moodley told DM168.

The South African K9 team was in high demand because, unlike some other teams, its five sniffer dogs were able to locate both living and dead victims. One of the dogs sniffed out an 80-year-old woman who had been trapped under the rubble for several days.

Many survivors had lost everything in just 45 seconds. In the city streets, young and old residents sat around makeshift fires, looking out at the destruction.

“She was still alive after so many days… That’s a miracle… We were hugging each other… It was a joyous moment … that gave us hope that we would find more victims [who] were alive,” said Moodley.

“This was a unique situation with rubble, broken-down buildings… With a collapsed building like that in an earthquake, you’ve got wires all over, you’ve got broken glass … but the dogs worked amazingly well.”

General Fannie Masemola, national commissioner of the SAPS, commended the K9 team for the role it played in search-and-rescue efforts.

“We are happy to hear that our role yielded significant results and we were able to provide closure to the people of [Turkey]. On behalf of the SAPS, I would like to pay gratitude to the team who have displayed commitment and dedication to the cause,” said Masemola.

Harsh conditions

The search-and-rescue team was driven and experienced, according to Bham. They camped around Hatay Stadium under tough conditions, with no access to toilets or showers. At times, they would experience earthquake tremors with magnitudes of up to 4.1.

Donna was one of the dogs in the South African Police Service’s K9 search-and-rescue team that helped to sniff out an 80-year-old woman trapped beneath the rubble. (Photo: Gift of the Givers)

“It’s minus six, minus five degrees [Celsius], and yet the team is motivated. They work the whole day, come back, don’t complain about food or anything – they understand why we are here,” he said.

Read in Daily Maverick:Survivors leave earthquake zone in Turkey, focus turns to homeless

“We huddle together every day and have a debriefing [about] whatever is bothering them… The next day, they’re ready and they do it again, and they carry the flag and represent us really well.

“When we have our debriefings every night we ask each other just to reflect. We’re going to go back home now. Look at the people we’re leaving behind. Their lives have changed forever.”

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Bham pointed out that many survivors had lost everything in just 45 seconds. In the city streets, young and old residents sat around makeshift fires, looking out at the destruction.

“They are mourning the loss of everything. They carry maybe only a book that they salvaged from the ruins, or a teddy bear – just sitting with a teddy bear and rocking. It is sad, very sad,” said Moodley.

Many locals approached the rescue teams to help as interpreters and drivers, giving their time despite the personal problems they faced. A driver for the Gift of the Givers team assisted every day, without charging for fuel or services. His only condition was that he needed to be at home in the evenings, according to Bham.

“I told my translator: ‘Ask him why he has to be at home in the evening; he can come stay with us at the camp.’” said Bham. “Then he told us that his family lost everything and they sleep in the truck at night.

“During a time when [local residents] are at their bottom, they’re still standing up and saying: ‘We are here to help. Thank you for helping us.’”

The South African Police Service’s K9 search-and-rescue team that responded to the Turkey-Syria earthquake comprised Warrant Officer Keagan Naidoo, Brigadier Vimla Moodley, Sergeant Jennifer Seleka, Warrant Officer Martin Bann, Warrant Officer Len Willemse and Warrant Officer Tinalia Gouws. (Photo: Brigadier Vimla Moodley)

The South African team was not alone in providing help in the wake of the earthquake. Rescue personnel from countries around the world have travelled to the region.

Among them was a rescuer whose life had intersected with a Gift of the Givers mission once before. A member of the Bosnian team approached Bham with a story to tell.

“He said, you know in 1994, Gift of the Givers and South Africa sent the containerised hospital to Bosnia – it was Dr [Imtiaz] Sooliman’s first mission, the first-ever containerised hospital built – and he’s telling me, ‘I was born in your hospital’,” said Bham.

“He started showing me pictures of the hospital from Gift of the Givers’ trip to Bosnia in 1994 and him as a baby… and he’s a rescuer now.” DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


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