Heartache: Earthquakes in my country

Feb. 13, 2023, 11:52 p.m.

February 8, 2023

It was morning in Istanbul as it was night here. I called my mom. I knew she had spent the whole day in sadness, over the earthquakes. She told me how it was snowing in Istanbul, and how depressing it all felt. I imagined my mother in our house by the window, looking at the snow with her pale green eyes; in her mind, the screams of people under the buildings are echoing. 

People are dying of cold, she said. You know how cold it is there. They are under the buildings, unrescued, freezing painfully as death takes them away. 

Antakya is ruined, she said. The city is flat. Go and read about it …

Antakya. That was the breaking point for me. Antakya, flat. Crushed. Antakya. A city that has so much meaning for me. A city of kind people. A city that changed me in some way, gifted me a love for archaeology. My beautiful Antakya is forever gone now.

We ended the call and I crawled into my bed. Scrolling through Instagram, I saw the videos of the earthquakes again and again. There was a sense of everything changing my heart — a sense of futility that gave itself to the tears that exiled sleep away. 

I was finally hit by the severity of the situation. I didn’t sleep that night. Instead I watched videos of buildings collapsing in Antakya, children under buildings, men shouting for help, not enough help, women in tears, asking for prayers. Apartments that house innocent people with normal lives have collapsed into the ground; people are dying. Each person has a different story of pain, on the shattering lands of southeastern Turkey.  

Their pain is real, and there is nothing more real than this. 34,000 people have died, and more people will die. People have lost their homes, waiting shelterless in the severe cold of the east Anatolian winter. Thousands of children lost their families. Rescue is slow, and people are helpless in digging up their relatives under the fallen bricks. 

I understand what these people are saying in these videos, as they are my people, speaking my language. We have a collectivist culture in Turkey; we are connected to each other. We share each other’s pain. People care for each other. The women of Gaziantep, who were devastated by these earthquakes: I would call them my aunt. I understand what they are crying for, what they are saying. 

I had been to Hatay and Aleppo years ago, before the war happened. It was more than a decade ago, yet there are moments from our days in Hatay and Aleppo that I still remember very vividly as if they were yesterday.

There is an archaeology museum in Hatay that has the largest collection of ancient mosaics in the world. It was 12 years ago, I remember, that my mother and I had run into a group of school children at the museum. My mother had taken a picture of me with this girl who was my age. I remember the Eastern features of her face. I wonder what she is doing now. 

It is believed that the mythological story of Daphne and Apollo happened in Antakya. I remember my mother and I had gone to a place surrounded by daphne trees and waterfalls; that place leaves a mark in my mind as the image of an oasis. I have this very distinct memory of my mother and me in an old church at a ceremony in Antakya. I remember the details of the silver ornaments the father was holding. A holy image that I can’t go back to now. 

The oldest church in the world also happens to be in Hatay. I remember my curiosity and excitement as a child as I went through its gates. I remember the three stars that were carved on its white stones on the outside. I remember the people of Hatay, and how welcoming they were. I remember how we were offered Künefe, a local dessert made of cheese. People were helpful. 

I remember the car ride to Aleppo very vividly. The houses in Aleppo were made of stone, as stone keeps them cool in summer and warm in winter. I remember the Great Mosque of Aleppo, how grandiose it felt. We were wearing long dresses with our heads covered, timidly approaching the rooms of prayers. And I remember the bazaar, how richly colorful it was. And I remember the women with only their eyes out there. Aleppo was a majestic, different world. 

Today I am sitting in Old Union; tabs for the 103 midterm are open next to the tabs of newspaper articles about the earthquake. I call my mom crying. She knows how emotional I am, for she is just like me. Why is this geography so unfortunate? I murmur through my tears. Some old churches in Hatay are now ruined. 

I must have loved these cities so much to have given them a permanent place in my memory. 

I had lost the Aleppo of my memories years ago to the war, and now I am losing my Antakya. And there is nothing I can really do about it. I felt horrible, horrible yesterday for being so safe here, and for crying over things that mean nothing compared to the suffering happening in my country. People are watching their families die, stuck under buildings, layers and layers of bricks. Help is coming too late. I feel horrible for having everything here, and not saving a life. 

I went to Bechtel after crying for hours yesterday, to discuss tabling and having a day for the catastrophe in White Plaza. My father, who is a doctor, went to Hatay to take care of people. The Turkish Student Association at Stanford is trying to raise awareness and motivate people to donate through posters, social media and email channels. 

There are people and places in our lives that change who we are, but are destined to leave us one day. My mother and I didn’t know that the beauty we experienced in Hatay and Aleppo was a temporary one. A futile, fleeting beauty that will never leave my mind. 

Today, tears are still falling down my eyes every time I come across videos of people hurt by the earthquake. I will try to do as much as I can, but I still feel like I can’t do anything. Perhaps what I am feeling is survivor’s guilt in some sense.

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Lara Selin Seyahi is a junior from Istanbul, Turkey. She enjoys exploring art museums, reading novels, and discussing ideas in psychology, neuroscience, and about the meaning of life, and love. Reach out at [email protected] to discuss anything.

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