Dogs last hope for Turkiye quake survivors

ANKARA, 11 Feb 2023:

Mia and Farah, a pair of Belgian Malinois, play with an empty bottle on a lawn after hours in the back of a truck and look to their handlers for food, as any pet would.

But moments later, they leap into a high stakes game of life and death – as the dogs are crucial in helping search for survivors among the ruins of Antakya, one of the hardest-hit cities by the earthquakes that struck southeastern Turkiye on Monday.

“The dogs learn to look for people trapped in the rubble through play, for them it’s no different to looking for a stick,” said a member of the Ericam team, the Emergency and Immediate Response Service of the Community of Madrid, which has been in the area since Tuesday.

The group, which is made up of four dogs and their respective owners, as well as around 20 firefighters trained in tracing survivors of disasters and several health workers, first helped rescue efforts in Iskenderun, which has also been hit by several landslides.

There they rescued a man who was trapped between the walls of a building for more than 48 hours on Wednesday, after hearing his cries for help.

It took several hours to reach him, because there was hardly any space between the floor and ceiling, and holes had to be drilled from floor to floor to climb up from below, firefighters say.

Knowing where to look is important and it is usually the neighbours who alert the team after hearing voices coming from the rubble.

“First we do an inspection ourselves, call out and knock to see if there is a response. Up to about 3m-deep we can hear noises. If we don’t detect anything, the dogs come, they are trained to trace the smell of a living person up to 7m. And if that doesn’t work either, we place the geophones, high-precision sensors,” explained David Barderas, a member of the team.

The dogs are trained to react only to smells of living people; they ignore corpses, he explains, and the team is not dedicated to recovering the dead.

In Antakya yesterday, five days after the disaster struck, hopes are fading but have not been abandoned completely – since the low temperatures are tempered by the layers of rubble and the cold makes people dehydrate less quickly, explained Kike Arribas, another Ericam firefighter.

But the work among the ruins is more difficult than usual, as the extent of the disaster is enormous – entire city blocks have been razed.

Everywhere there is already heavy machinery working to remove concrete blocks and free at least some of the streets that have been completely covered with rubble and cars crushed by the fallen buildings.

The noise of the bulldozers, along with the screeching ambulances making their way through the trucks and rescue cars, as well as the occasional generator, makes hearing calls from survivors extremely difficult.

And in front of every mountain of rubble, neighbours warm themselves with campfires – a solemn vigil at the place where they lost their loved ones.

“Come here, please, here,” they shout as the Spanish team passes by, but it is impossible to attend to everyone in this desperate field of ruins.

Mia and Farah jump on the concrete slabs, sniff among the twisted iron and finally get into a hole that has been left open, but they come out after a while without result.

Two firefighters crawl in between the slabs and call out numerous times, registering vibrations on their sensors, but again to no apparent avail.

“Nothing,” is the conclusion. They move on to the next point, barely a hundred metres further, where someone thinks he has heard noises. Perhaps it is true: hope is the last thing that will be lost.

Against the odds, glimmers of hope continued to emerge from under the rubble as rescuers pulled several survivors out from under collapsed buildings in earthquake-devastated southeast Turkiye and northwest Syria yesterday.

On the fifth day of search and rescue operations since the two major earthquakes struck, the death toll had risen to more than 22,000 people and tens of thousands more injured in the two countries.

Turkiye’s fatalities now sit at over 19,400 with 77,000 people injured, disaster agency AFAD reported – although it is estimated there are still thousands of people under the debris in the 10 most-affected provinces.

Monday’s shallow magnitude-7.7 and 7.6 earthquakes have been followed by more than 1,500 aftershocks, but they have not deterred search teams which, in freezing temperatures, were still finding and rescuing survivors.

In Hatay province, a family including toddler Sela Elbarazi, her mother, father, brother and uncle were all pulled alive from the rubble 96 hours after the quakes, state news outlet Anadolu reported yesterday.

A 4-year-old girl was also rescued in Hatay, as was 30-year-old engineer Hikmet Yigitbas after 101 hours, it added.

“I am so happy. I haven’t been sleeping for three days. I only took a nap for two hours. I was about to go home and have some rest. I was told a voice was heard, and I went back,” rescue team volunteer Mustafa Aydin said in a video posted by Anadolu that showed the moment Yigitbas was carried out from a mountain of concrete.

“He said ‘don’t leave without giving me a hug, brother.’ He’s going to visit me in Istanbul too,” Aydin added.

In Kahramanmaras province, a mother and her daughter were found alive after 92 hours and two sisters were rescued after 100 hours, and in Adiyaman province, rescuers recovered a relatively unscathed 17-year-old Gülsüm Yeşilkaya after 90 hours from 8m under the rubble of an apartment building.

More than 130,000 search and rescue personnel from Turkiye and abroad are working in the country’s disaster areas, where over 6,400 buildings have been destroyed, according to AFAD.

Over 70 countries have sent assistance such as financial or medical aid, personnel and equipment to Turkiye as of yesterday, Anadolu said.


Turkish authorities have so far evacuated over 150,000 people from southeastern Turkiye, where hundreds of thousands of the 13.4 million residents of the 10 provinces affected by the earthquake have been left homeless.

National carrier Turkish Airlines set up an air bridge between the quake-hit region and western areas and plans to evacuate nearly 27,000 people yesterday alone, bringing the total number of evacuees to 125,057 on Turkish Airlines flights, a spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, the disaster and emergency management agency (AFAD) reported yesterday that it has evacuated some 30,300 people.

The Turkish Navy will also make five military vessels available to transport quake victims from coastal areas where all habitable buildings have been destroyed.

Evacuees will be temporarily housed in hotels in tourist cities on Turkiye’s southern coast, such as Antalya. State institution facilities like schools and sports centres will also be used to accommodate homeless earthquake victims.


Across the border in Syria, president Bashar al-Assad visited the northwestern province of Aleppo, one of the hardest hit by the earthquakes, in his first public appearance since the initial earthquake registered early Monday morning.

In his first public remarks since the disaster, he accused the West of ignoring the “human” disaster unfolding in Syria because of “political” considerations, amid a debate on the humanitarian effects of international sanctions against Damascus.

During his visit to Aleppo, he accused Western countries of “prioritising politics over the humanitarian situation (…) the human condition does not exist in the West,” al-Assad said, according to state outlet SANA, which he said was guilty of plundering, theft and killings for 600 years of colonialism.

This was the first time he has spoken in public since the disaster, which has left at least 3,384 dead and 5,245 wounded throughout the country. Casualties in Syria are expected to increase significantly as rescue work continues.

At least 2,000 of the deaths were reported by the White Helmets civil defence force, which works in opposition-controlled areas, as of yesterday morning. It also reported over 2,950 people injured, and warned there were “hundreds of families” still under collapsed structures.

Meanwhile, a second UN convoy in two days has arrived with emergency aid for the victims in northwestern Syria, the country’s worst affected region.

The trucks have crossed the Turkish-Syrian border at Bab al-Hawa, the only open crossing in the area – the rest have been closed amid Syria’s 12-year-old civil war – on a road that was badly damaged by the earthquakes, the International Organisation for Migration confirmed from Geneva.

Bab al-Hawa is the only direct route for supplies to enter opposition-held areas of Idlib and Aleppo provinces, which are home to more than 4 million people who were already dependent on humanitarian aid before the quake catastrophe and nearly 3 million internally displaced persons.

In a statement, UN secretary general Antonio Guterres said: “People are facing nightmare on top of nightmare. The earthquake struck as the humanitarian crisis in northwest Syria was already worsening, with needs at their highest level since the conflict began,” adding that it was “one of the biggest natural disasters in our times.”

The catastrophe is now this century’s seventh most deadly natural disaster, ahead of Japan’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami.