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Turkish ambassador Aysegul Kandas moved by South Africa’s ‘common humanity’ amid quake horror

Turkish ambassador Aysegul Kandas moved by South Africa’s ‘common humanity’ amid quake horror
International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor with Turkish ambassador Aysegul Kandas at the Turkish embassy to sign the condolence book for earthquake victims on 27 February 2023. (Photo: Twitter / DIRCO_ZA)

South Africans have stepped up to help Turks deal with the massive earthquake that struck on 6 February.

The death toll from the 7.8 magnitude earthquake which hit southeastern Turkiye and northern Syria at 4.10am on 6 February has now surpassed 50,000 and is rising fast. As about 15,000 heavy machines clear the rubble of demolished buildings on the Turkish side, they are uncovering many more buried bodies. Most of those who died – about 45,000 counted so far – were in Turkiye

The country’s ambassador to South Africa, Aysegul Kandas, notes that her president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has declared the earthquake the disaster of the century. The implication is that the death toll will exceed the estimated 220,000 who perished in Haiti’s 7.0 magnitude quake of 12 January 2010.

If there is any consolation to be gleaned from this appalling tragedy it has been the solidarity expressed by the rest of the world, in words, in kind and in deeds to her country, Kandas told Daily Maverick. She had been particularly touched by the outpouring of support from South Africans.

“It is really about the common humanity of South African people and Turkish people… It’s a very special moment to see all this humanitarian effort and all this humanity of the South African people,” she says. 

“And it is really touching, it is really important for us that South Africa from so far away was among the first countries that sent a search-and-rescue team.” This Gift of the Givers team comprised 33 people as well as five K9 Unit rescue dogs from the South African Police Service and six police dog handlers.

The arrival of such teams during the first 72 hours of the disaster had been critical to save lives, Kandas said. About 8,000 foreign search-and-rescue personnel had arrived, joining about 20,000 Turks.

Turkey quake

International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor and Turkish ambassador Aysegul Kandas at the Turkish embassy on 27 February 2023. (Photo: Twitter / DIRCO_ZA)

Kandas also notes another first for South Africa. Two days after the quake, the Muslim TV station INX Prime “was the first in the world, as far as we know” to organise a TV pledge line, with partner stations in London and Malaysia, which raised a lot of money.

Kandas says she has barely slept in the past three weeks because she has been organising the appeals, collection and delivery of aid from South Africa to Turkiye. There are four collection points in the country – in Pretoria, Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban – and Kandas and her embassy staff constantly announce on their own social media and on TV  and radio what equipment is currently most needed in the disaster zone.

It started with clothes and blankets but has transitioned to winter tents – a critical need with temperatures dropping to -10°C, sleeping bags, generators and now mobile toilets and showers, mattresses and camp stretcher beds and mats. 

Read in Daily Maverick: 

Turkey hit by two more earthquakes near epicentre of last catastrophe

New Turkey quake kills one person, flattens more buildings

Every night since soon after the quake, the scheduled 8pm Turkish Airline flight from OR Tambo International Airport – as well as regular flights from Cape Town and Durban – have been flying this material to Istanbul free of charge. From there it is flown to Adana, a few hundred kilometres from the epicentre since all the closer airports were flattened in the quake. 

From Adana the Turkish national disaster and emergency management authority (AFAD) transports the material by road. 

In addition to the regular flights Kandas has so far also arranged two special dedicated cargo flights by Turkish Airlines which have each transported about 10 tons of equipment to Turkiye. When Daily Maverick spoke to her she was still embroiled in the “logistical nightmare” of getting two huge tents donated by a Cape Town businessman – each 1,000m2 in area – packed and transported to the airport to be loaded onto a third special cargo flight, along with other large items such as mobile toilets.

Kandas notes that she is competing with 257 other Turkish diplomatic missions in almost 100 countries around the world to get the dedicated cargo aircraft to fly to South Africa to collect the gear. Each one of those missions is – equally energetically – appealing, collecting and delivering, as she and her staff have been doing.

Global effort

There has been a huge global effort to mobilise support for the survivors, including search-and-rescue teams, mainly from Turkiye’s neighbours, and to provide shelter to the survivors. All the hospitals in the region were flattened and so 77 field hospitals have been erected, 28 by foreign countries. 

Winter tents are critical for survival and 110,000 have so far been delivered to Turkiye from abroad, 750 of them from South Africa, adding to the 200,000 provided by Turkiye. The world has also given about 1.5 million blankets, 200,000 sleeping bags, 81,000 mattresses and about 27,000 generators. 

Turkey quake

People pass collapsed buildings in the aftermath of powerful earthquakes in Hatay, Turkiye, on 23 February 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Erdem Sahin)

Of these, South Africa has so far provided 179 power generators, 640 gas heaters, 116 mobile toilets, 3,300 sleeping bags, 6,254 blankets and four tons of clothes. Kandas says all the material from South Africa so far comes to more than 100 tons.

“We are grateful to the South African public from all walks of life for these things and the fundraising campaigns.” 

Read in Daily Maverick: “South African rescuers – and sniffer dogs – bring hope amid the sorrow to Turkey survivors

She notes that so many people just walk into the Turkish embassy and consuls general to sign the condolence books and announce donations. The charity Darul Ihsan from Durban, for instance, collected about R1-million. 

“The Salaam Foundation came to the embassy and they said, by the way, ‘we have collected R50,000 and transferred it to your bank account. We mobilised the children in communities all over the country in a campaign called LemonAid.’ The kids have put up their own pop-up shops and sold lemonade for Turkiye.”

The Salaam Foundation also travelled to Turkiye within 48 hours of the earthquake and provided meals and other aid to survivors.

Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations

Children have also been coming to her residence in Pretoria to drop off donations. “This is just a beautiful show of support and solidarity. And it’s really about the common humanity of South African people and Turkish people.”

She also praises Stavros Nicolaou of Aspen Pharmaceutical for donating 4,000 blankets and a large consignment of medicine, as well as South Africa’s Health Department for giving 10 tons of personal protective equipment, and the Department of International Relations and Cooperation for facilitating all these deliveries and arrangements.

And she says even the expatriate South African community in Turkiye has been helping out, by delivering goods to the earthquake zone.  

And the entire diplomatic corps in South Africa – one of the largest in the world – had been very supportive too. She had been particularly touched when, two days after the earthquake, a group of Ukrainian women came to the embassy and dropped off flowers, notes of encouragement, cards and little teddy bears.

It’s been three weeks since the earthquake so, sadly, the search-and-rescue phase is over and South Africa’s teams have returned. Kandas visited the SAPS last week to thank them for their support and heard how, among others, they had found a 90-year-old woman alive under the rubble.

She says quite a few South Africans remain in Turkiye, providing support to the survivors, of whom about 120,000 have been rescued so far.

Turkey quake

Members of the Turkish national disaster and emergency management authority walk past a collapsed building in Hatay on 21 February 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Erdem Sahin)

Sadly, though, her government expected the death toll to rise rapidly now as the heavy machines removed the rubble to reveal bodies beneath. 

“It’s the disaster of the century, as declared by my president. It’s even worse than Haiti.” That’s saying a lot since more than 220,000 perished in that earthquake 13 years ago. 

“We expect the death toll to be a lot because this earthquake covered 10 cities and affected a population of 13.5 million.” 

‘Ground is still shaking’

Whole cities have been wiped from the map. Also, the faultline was large and close to the surface, and a second large earthquake followed nine hours after the first and almost 7,000 aftershocks have struck since. As late as last Friday one new tremor measured 5.0 magnitude.

“The ground is not settled, the energy which was released, equal to so many atomic bombs, it’s still not settled and the ground is still shaking.”

Kandas recalls that a few days ago an aftershock of 6.4 magnitude killed several people who had returned to their homes to collect phones and other belongings.

Turkey quake

A man walks among the rubble of collapsed buildings in the aftermath of the powerful earthquakes in Hatay on 23 February 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Erdem Sahin)

Turkish authorities have nevertheless been conducting a parallel effort for several days, cleaning up the rubble and recovering the dead, but also building tent or container cities for the survivors and already starting to build new permanent homes for them beyond the earthquake zone – racing against time, Kandas says, because of the freezing cold. 

Some of these had lost all of their families. “No relatives left in this world… all these people who are left with no belongings, out in the cold on the street, that we need to accommodate.”

Neighbouring countries have been providing containers. The Turkish ministry of family and social affairs has deployed about 6,500 psychologists and other personnel to help survivors deal with the trauma, especially the many orphans. DM


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