By Ghada Alatrash
Elaph Yassin, the author of the Facebook posts below has a brother, Aban, who hasn’t yet been found underneath the rubble in Antakya. Today, February 12th, her latest post says, “Just now, a 52-year-old man was pulled out . . . The #ceasing of rescue efforts while people are still alive is a crime. Today, five people were pulled out alive, after rescue efforts were ordered to cease. Bulldozers have begun to shovel the rubble . . . this is a crime that must stop.”
She began her Facebook posts six days ago, on the same day when the earthquake struck in Syria and Turkey in the early morning hours of February 6, 2023. Below is yet another story that will likely not make it to news channels. They are excerpts of a larger narrative and are translated from Arabic to English.
Her posts began when she first received the news: “Does anyone live close to the Academy Hospital in Antakya [Turkey]. We have missing family members.”
A few hours later, she wrote: “If anyone lives nearby Antakya, near Carrefour or the Academy Hospital, contact me.”
Then, after another couple of hours, she wrote, “My brother is missing. His building is destroyed. I don’t know if he is dead or alive. Can anyone go check on him? I don’t even know the exact address. If anyone lives in Antakya, contact me.”
Then a few more hours later, she wrote, “My brother lives in a building that is both commercial and residential. Two families live there, his and another Syrian family. The rescue teams have not yet arrived until now, the building is on the ground, and my brother is still missing. Can anyone contact AFAD [The Disaster and Emergency Management Authority)] in Antakya and give me their number so that we can explain to them that this building is not only commercial and there may be people underneath the rubble. My brother’s name is Aban. He is my one and only brother. I need help. Anyone’s help. Even a phone number could help. I am begging for help. I am looking for any possible way to get in touch with the rescue team.”
Then she wrote, “Please share this post. My brother is still missing, and rescue teams have not yet arrived. My mother has arrived at the scene, and she is standing on the rubble, calling out my brother’s name. There is no one there but her and the few people like her. If anyone can go and help with removing the rubble, call AFAD, or do anything. [She goes on to give the address of the building].”
The next day, five days ago, she wrote, “My mother is in Antakya, next to the rubble where perhaps my brother’s shrine lies. She has no place to sleep or take care of her feminine needs or to even eat. They are two ladies [she and her friend] looking for a place to perform their ablution, pray, and plead to God. Is there anyone who can help?”
On the same day, a few hours later, she wrote, “In the face of this collective sadness, I am reluctant to speak. But, my brother (32 years old) and his wife (22 years old) are still under the rubble. Rescue teams are still hearing moans from underneath the rubble. They pulled out five people alive and five martyrs. The process is very slow, and a man died in the midst of the excavation and digging as it took too long to reach him. My mother is sleeping next to the rubble in Antakya and continues to call out my brother’s name in case he can hear her. I am not able to respond to all the messages, calls, and prayers that we’ve been receiving from everywhere, and I have yet to see anyone as loved as my brother . . . I pray that God has mercy on my mother’s heart and brings him back to her . . .”
Four days ago, she posted, “I have arrived in Gaziantep [Turkey] with the help of the Qataris, Arab Qatari Muslims. The country here [Turkey] has swallowed everyone who lives in it and all that is in it. I lost my father four years ago, and now my brother is underneath the rubble. The possibility of losing him is greater than his survival . . . I am on my way to see my mother and what is left of hope in seeing my brother. . . Pray for my only brother, for my mother, and for me. May this destruction not bring us to lose more than what’s already been lost.”
Three days ago, she wrote, “The latest fad in the Turkish rescue efforts is that when there is no sound heard from underneath the rubble, the rescue teams stop their search. So, one should remember, the next time this happens and you are stuck underneath the rubble (in Turkey that is) to speak loudly, and perhaps even sing, so that you may not lose your chance to survive. When Aban and I were little kids, we would yell when we got into a disagreement; my voice was always louder than his as I was older than him . . . O Aban, I wish I were dead before having to witness this. I wish it was me instead of you, because I love you and because you are my only brother; and because my voice is louder and would have better met the measures of the Turkish rescue efforts. Please shout, Aban, so they can come back to you. And to all humanity, I beg of you to shout out with us so that we can be heard. The hope in rescuing him alive seems to be gone, and so is the possibility of burying him next to our father. My mother was the one who explained the rules of the rescue.”
Also three days ago, she wrote: “Our neighbor in the rubble is from Antakya… he speaks Arabic, like us, with a Syrian accent. He explained to me that he is hopeful that there is oxygen for his children and my brother. He said that he knew who my brother was and used to see him drinking his morning coffee as he sat on his newly married daughter’s balcony . . . Today rescue teams from Kazakhstan, Japan, and Turkey have arrived, and the real rescue efforts have just begun . . . I slept next to my brother besides the edge of the rubble under which my brother lies. Pray for us and for our Antakyan neighbor, and that the oxygen is more generous than the rubble. . .”
Three days ago: “Aban is still missing. A number of small earthquakes put a stop to the pulling out of victims, also forcing me to leave the bottom of the building as I feared for the lives of those who were with me. The noise of ambulances is music to our ears, sending joy for a few seconds and announcing that the destruction was defeated in the face of another life that was saved . . . Today, I hugged tens of people whom I do not know. Humans become siblings in the midst of death; blood is mixed with all kinds of other blood. ‘When the earth shall quake with a mighty quaking / and the earth shall cast forth her burdens / and man shall say—what has befallen her—” Quran, Surah 99, Al-Zalzalah[The Earthquake].
Three days ago: “An hour ago, a man came out alive and safe from the building that is next to my brother’s. His name is Ali. He is Turkish. He said that he could hear voices of others alive. O God of the meek, Aban is in your hands, and at your mercy. Pray for us. Pray for us. God.”
Three days ago: “I stand in fear at the hope that is left in us. We are hanging on to ropes from the sky and the prayers of others. Oh God, people are praying for us in Sufi circles, in mosques, in husainiyas, and are lighting candles in churches, repeating on their tongues the name our one and only [Aban]. . . The immense love we’ve received has given my mother and me a little hope . . . Antakya is devoid of everything except for rubble, tears, and little hope.”
Two days ago: “Do you know what it feels like to put your head on the ground with the hopes that you may hear the voice of someone you love? Seventy-two hours have passed, and my brother is missing. There are a few meters between him and I, and tons of rubble. Today, the Kazakhstani rescue teams have left after they took the corpses of those who carry their nationality and whom they came searching for. They pulled them out in a few hours. They didn’t come for us or our children, they came for their people and left. The Turkish rescue teams have returned to work, at a slow place that kills the soul before the heart. . . . What do I tell my mother in the face of this horror? Hope fades away while I tremble at the movement of each stone. If the White Helmets were here, they would have helped pull them all out, for they have experience in rubble and with battling death. Rescue teams here take breaks as they feel necessary, and some of them stop work as if they were employees on the clock, leaving at 12:00 a.m. and returning to work at 8:00 a.m. . . . I am asking for help. I want my people; I want Syrians to come and help. Syrians. Muslims. I want to cry with them and to feel their love and empathy for my pain . . . I want the help of anyone. I want my brother, dead or alive, so that I can leave with him or with his coffin. Take me to my people, to those who come from the same history and who speak the same language . . . take us and bury us if you wish, in your hands and not with the cold-heartedness of others . . . Dear God, Aban is in your hands. Return him to us in a dignified manner.”
Two days ago: “Hundreds are under the rubble. Without any help. My brother is amongst them. I am in a place called Ataturk . . . all of them are my siblings, Aban being the dearest. All buildings have Syrian families.”
Two days ago: “Everyone in the place heard the scream. It felt like Judgement Day. The rescue workers embraced one another upon hearing it. There was someone alive calling for help. A few minutes ago, the drilling began to find him. Hope is playing with us like the shakes of the earthquake. Our souls were rejuvenated at the screams of the buried person. We all clapped together for his spirit that refused to die after five days of the catastrophe. I wonder what kept him quiet and what awakened him? What do those underneath the rubble think about in their moments of waiting? I wonder what Aban is thinking about, if he is still alive. Do they pray like us, do they ask God for another chance so that they could return and live a better life? Did they reflect on their mistakes and are they planning for their future outside the walls of the prisons of rubble. The sun is setting, and another night is approaching and throwing its haze on us and on them. I am roaming amidst the four buildings, calling out in Arabic, hoping that Syrians would hear a familiar language, one that they know, and a voice that resembles that of their sisters and mothers. . . . My mother prays, ‘Oh God, who has rescued Jonah from the stomach of a whale, bring back my son.’ She goes silent and then says, ‘my son and his friends.’ . . . Aban, his wife, and his friends are still underneath the rubble. We are waiting for his voice to breathe spirit in us, Abbouna’s [Aban’s nickname] voice. Dear God of those under the rubble, hasten your rescue and offer us another chance as a family that has not yet healed from the death of a father’s passing. Dear God, don’t leave me alone, don’t leave me in the eye of the wind alone. Pray for us, for all of us, for my mother, Aban, his new friends, and for me. . .”
Twelve hours ago: Elaph posts a few videos of the buildings and the rubble, then she announces on February 12 that she was going live on Facebook to speak of the horror and what she has witnessed. In her announcement, as mentioned above, she posts, “Just now, a 52-year-old man was pulled out . . . The #ceasing of rescue efforts of humans who are alive is a crime. Today, five people were pulled out alive, after it was ordered that rescue efforts stop. Bulldozers have begun to shovel the rubble . . . this is a crime that must stop.”
In the video, Elaph speaks in Arabic for 17:57 minutes, and asks for the video to be shared. She tells us that Turkish authorities have ordered all efforts to stop and that the bulldozers have begun their work to remove the rubble; she apologizes for the way she looks as she had not slept for six days and brings her fingers close to the camera to show the remnants of the rubble underneath her fingernails as she had been digging with her hands and looking for lives; she apologizes for not having good news to share; she thanks everyone for their prayers and empathy as it has helped give them patience and hope; she explains that yesterday the Turkish authorities ordered the search for victims to stop, and informs us that bulldozers have entered and are refusing any rescue efforts of any teams; she describes the buildings as if they were made of cards and how the city has fallen completely to the ground, with the exception of perhaps twenty newer buildings; she hopes that the video is shared with the world as this is not only about her brother but about many lives that could be saved; she tells us that the rescue teams only arrived and begun their work three days after the earthquake, and that there are some areas that were not visited by rescue teams at all until this moment; she talks about one young woman who is in touch with her brother [via phone] and that no one has gotten to her site; she declares that a number of people underneath the rubble have lost their lives because of mere neglect and the terrible management of Turkish authorities; she explains that teams are only allowed to enter after the approval of the Turkish authorities who also decided on which areas to send them to; she narrates how in a building located behind brother’s, where Turkish officers happened to live, the efforts to rescue did not stop until this date; that there are meek Turks who are suffering the same fate as Syrians without anyone caring for their children; that there is much loitering taking place including the theft of fridges, furniture, and so much more; that the city resembles death; that the stench of corpses is now reeking; that she tried to contact organizations to help but no one is allowed in; that rescue teams are dealing with the situation in such careless and primitive ways; that they call out in Turkish and if they receive no response, they assume that no one is alive; that they are using outdated thermal cameras to detect life; that rescue teams are withdrawing from the place because of the unsafe security conditions on the streets; that they are bringing dogs to smell the rubble and if the dogs don’t bark, then they conclude that there is no life in that area; that they are leaving corpses in blankets to be identified and if no one does, they ship them away in funeral cars because of their stench; that the Turkish president said that they would continue with their efforts until the last body is pulled out but this is not the case today; that there are no tents for people, no bathrooms; that the situation resembles the bombardment scenes by Russians, except that there is not bombardment.
She tells us much more in her video, and that her brother continues to be underneath the rubble; that until now they have not gotten to her brother’s first floor, or the second or the third floor of the five-storey building. She says that she believes in miracles and believes in God, and here she cries (for a second) as she speaks of her brother. She quickly collects herself and continues, expressing her sadness at how human lives are not treated as worthy of saving; she thanks God three times and asks God for patience and for miracles, although she is not sure how many miracles it would take for the pain to be alleviated. She tells us that her brother is but one story; her voice breaks, and she prays that her brother’s soul rests in peace, says alhamdullillah and turns off the camera in tears.
Then 8 hours ago [her last post as of this moment], she writes in Turkish and in Arabic, “Don’t stop search and rescue efforts, and ends it with the hashtag, #There_is_a_voice, #sesverin, #هناك_صوت.
Syrian author and former political prisoner Faraj Bayraqdar writes a book titled Betrayals of Language and Silence, It is in this moment that that language betrays me. The words of Elaph Yassin as translated above are the only words that are capable of expressing the horror and the lived human condition of the Syrian and Turkish peoples today. May God have mercy on these humans, for these people and the likes of Elpah are living, as per the words of Judith Butler, an “ungrievable loss,” whose sadness must surely be insurmountable.
Elaph Yassin is a correspondent and investigative filmmaker at Al-Arabi TV residing in Doha, Qatar. She worked as a producer and reporter for Al-Jazeera Tv. She is the mother of 50 Syrian orphans who are currently in Turkey. Twitter: @elaph1.
Ghada Alatrash, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the School of Critical and Creative Studies at Alberta University of the Arts in Calgary, Canada. She holds a PhD in Educational Research: Languages and Diversity from the Werklund School of Education, the University of Calgary, and a Master’s Degree in English Literature from the University of Oklahoma. Her current research speaks to Syrian art and creative expression as resistance to oppression and dictatorship.