ANTAKYA, TURKIYE (AFP) – “We don’t know when we’ll be able to come back,” said Bilal Jawir as he finished loading a van with his family’s things and prepared to leave the earthquake-hit Turkish city of Antakya.
During last week’s tremor that rocked southeastern Turkiye and northern Syria, killing more than 44,000, Jawir, his wife and two daughters sheltered in a cluster of orange trees that adjoins their property. They survived unscathed but witnessed their neighbours falling from balconies.
“We have no hope. We have no work, no life, how could we return to live here?” Jawir said. “My heart aches. It’s hard.”
Though none of Jawir’s family were hurt and their yellow and white plaster home escaped serious damage, they do not want to stay for fear it has been weakened. “Coming back will depend on there being public services” in Antakya, he said as he twisted a ring on his dirt-caked hand.
Beyond those whose homes collapsed, millions of others across the region now face the dilemma of whether to risk re-entering their homes, wait for structural tests, or move elsewhere.
“It’s been hard to pack up and leave. I’ve got lots of memories here,” added Jawir, a builder. “My daughters were born here, we got married here.”
Then, with help from his uncle Hadi, 63, he tied down the truck’s bulging cargo with a chain and pink twine. Jawir and his uncle then headed to the older man’s home in Adana, a city three hours away by car that was spared the worst of the quake’s destructive force.
All that remained of their life at 16 Degirmen Street was a broken toy and a sturdy pair of boots. Jawir’s neighbours were also packing up their lives in Antakya’s Kislasaray neighbourhood and preparing to move on.
Adnan and his daughter Dilay were loading a pickup truck with large bags of clothes.
“We don’t know what will become of this house, will it be destroyed, we don’t know what will happen,” said Adnan who declined to give their family name.
Like the Jawirs, they did not want to gamble on whether their apartment building’s foundations had been weakened by the quake.
In their kitchen, 26-year-old Dilay’s mother despaired at the broken glass and smashed jars strewn on the floor. “I can’t take anything from here,” she said.
They were uninjured by the earthquake, having run outside in just their pyjamas, and will now move into a flat in Mersin, 270 kilometres away from Antakya on Turkiye’s Mediterranean coast.
A street away, a white car had been completely flattened by falling masonry and was surrounded by left-behind items – a portrait of a man and a woman, a vinyl record, a potted plant.
A platform lift operator working in the city’s north was quick to cash in on the disaster.
He told AFP he had upped his prices to USD80 an hour to use the apparatus, capable of reaching a fifth floor window, in addition to billing USD50 per mover and USD50 for a truck.
“We put our prices up because of the danger,” said the operator, who claimed to move six or seven apartments every day, as the platform descended loaded with a carpet, framed photographs and a hand mixer.
In Antakya’s old town, optician Cuneyt Eroglu, 45, sifted through the wreckage of his glasses shop.
“Mrs Hacer, if you see me, your lenses have arrived,” he laughed as he threw into a cardboard box packages retrieved from the deep rubble that has enveloped his Ottoman-era stone storefront.
“We will clean up and continue living here,” he said surrounded by twisted glasses paraphernalia including an Emporio Armani spectacles board and contact lens solution. He said finding his secondary school certificate in the wreckage of one of his four stores had left him overjoyed.
Unlike other parts of the old town, the street in front of his shop has not yet been cleared of the vast quantity of rubble and twisted metal that engulfed much of the city.
Eroglu, whose family escaped the earthquake uninjured, is now staying in a tent in a village outside Antakya. “Leaving is easy, staying is important,” he said. “After this, I want to stay in this street for the rest of my life.”