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As foreign rescuers arrive, Turkish earthquake survivors rush for help

A member of the Algerian rescue team communicates with a Turkish team via interpreters on Wednesday as they work to retrieve a body from the rubble in Adiyaman, Turkey. (Alice Martins for The Washington Post)


ADIYAMAN, Turkey — Algerian rescuers were the city’s heroes for a few minutes on Wednesday after rescuing two children from a collapsed apartment building on a wide, devastated boulevard, long past the time when anyone expected good news.

But no relatives were waiting to receive the children: a girl of perhaps seven, dressed in a white T-shirt, and a younger boy with cropped hair. It was possible that relatives would find them later, in a hospital, but also that their parents or other relatives were still under the rubble. Instead, it was a stranger – a Turkish charity worker – sobbing uncontrollably outside the tent where the children were recovering, as if they were his own.

The Algerians, along with rescue teams from Spain, Taiwan, Pakistan and elsewhere, were part of the patchwork of relief efforts that began Wednesday in Adiyaman and other devastated parts of southern Turkey, including visits from volunteers who brought food from other cities. But the distribution of government supplies — after days of complaints from survivors desperate for help — has been scattered and chaotic at times.

The Turkish government has appealed for international help in the wake of Monday’s earthquakes, which killed more than 12,000 people in Turkey and Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan toured Hatay province, a focus of the devastation, on Wednesday, announcing that the death toll in the country had passed 9,000 and vowing to rebuild towns and provide shelter for residents left homeless.

However, the anger here at the government’s response was still raw. Crowds gathered outside flattened homes demanding to know why no survivors were being searched for. And they confronted the provincial governor and chanted that Adiyaman had been “abandoned,” according to a video circulating online.

Turkey’s health minister said on Tuesday that at least 900 people had died in the city, 250,000 of them in the largely Kurdish southeast, but residents said on Wednesday the number was likely to be much higher.

Crowds of people gathered around trucks delivering large tents, part of a haphazard relief effort that also included the distribution of water and some clothing. Skirmishes broke out as the tents were thrown from a truck near the city center.

Somehow Pakize Icer managed to secure one of the tents, which was much bigger than them. She couldn’t seem to figure out how to get it into her car, and instead stood shivering, in a thin sweater, the tent at her feet. She and her family lived between some buildings, she said, and then she started crying because she said her uncle was still missing. “His whole family is dead,” she said. “Will we see better days?”

Esref Tuncer, 60, who came hoping to find blankets, walked away with a pair of thin socks and two sweaters.

He and his family, left homeless after the earthquakes, lived in a hall normally used for families receiving mourners after a death. As he surveyed the scenes around him, he seemed to doubt the promise that life would soon return to normal. “This will take two or three years,” he predicted.

But many tried to help. Just outside the city center, Halil Gulmus, a 60-year-old truck driver who had transported an excavator to Adiyaman, offered a ride out of town to a Syrian family who had lost their home. But the road to the airport was closed, he said, apologizing for letting them down. “Do you need water?” he asked. But what they needed was a tent.

A group of volunteers from the city of Sanliurfa drove around in two vans and handed out honey, chocolate, biscuits, strawberry and banana milk, fruit and diapers. The volunteers, all from the same family, were moved by videos of the destruction in Adiyaman, said Bekir Uludag, 33.

“We saw people were devastated,” he said.

While residents were desperate, the foreign rescuers got to work – including a group of Tunisians, a team from Taiwan and 51 workers from Pakistan. “The situation is very bad,” said Mohammed Farhan Khalid, the leader of the Pakistani team, who compared Turkey’s earthquakes to the 2005 Kashmir earthquake that killed tens of thousands of people.

“We’ve seen this,” he said. “More rescue and help is needed.”

The Algerians arrived late Monday and were “really good,” said Cihan Ozay, 33, whose own sister had just been pulled alive from a destroyed building by Turkish rescuers, whom he also praised.

“They have great equipment,” he said of the Algerians. “They’re taking out all the bodies.”

The Algerian team numbered 86 people — 89 including command personnel — and included six search and rescue dogs, said Colonel Farouk Achour, a spokesman, speaking shortly after his colleagues rescued the two children. The situation in Adiyaman was still “critical,” he said.

“Many people come to ask us to help them.”

For days, two brothers begged for help finding their parents, they said, to no avail. “They ignore us,” said Abdurrahman Calis, 23, a student who came from Istanbul after his brother, Osman Calis, a 27-year-old doctor, told him he had lost contact with their parents after the earthquake.

About ten people lived in the building and the Calis family lived on the first floor. On Wednesday morning, as another day passed, the brothers desperately joined a group of other family members who attempted to search the wreckage themselves, even as the entire building appeared to be collapsing.

Later in the day, however, there were signs that the city was getting more attention. Large generators and earthmoving equipment could be seen on flatbed trucks driving into town. And at the Calis family’s apartment building, a crane arrived and then an excavator – their plea for help was finally answered, Abdurrahman said, gesturing to what was left of his parents’ bedroom.

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