I am devastated, angry, and shocked. I am so many things, but not okay. I go to work, come back home, and tend to my daily routine, all while trying to ward off the ghosts of the past. It’s not my first earthquake trauma, but I hope it will be the last.
I was a kid when I first experienced a major earthquake. It hit my hometown, Kocaeli, on August 17th, 1999, and was felt across the Marmara Region. My mom woke us up and tried to sound as calm as possible. Something was wrong. She couldn’t reach my grandparents in Kocaeli.
I still remember how she paced our living room, biting her lip and muttering. We soon found ourselves on a bus—my mother, younger brother, and I. I would have been on cloud nine any other day because I had been missing my grandparents, but I wasn’t even sure if their house was still there that day.
Dealing with trauma
When the bus entered my hometown, we saw the collapsed buildings left and right. My mom moaned in agony while I tried so hard not to cry, with tears welling in my eyes and a burning feeling in my throat. Only when we got off the bus and ran to my grandparents’ apartment could we calm down.
It stood like a monument among our neighbors’ collapsed buildings. Few apartments survived, and my grandparents’ was one of them. My grandfather was standing in front of the building, unaware that the Alzheimer’s that claimed his life a decade later was about to be triggered by the earthquake.
I don’t have a clear memory of the tragedy I witnessed as a kid. All I remember is that we slept in a Turkish Red Crescent tent for a few weeks. I spent my days wandering around the rubble, daydreaming, playing, and reading books. My grandmother defended us against the rats that emerged at night.
I wasn’t scared or sad. I was too traumatized to feel anything. Nobody thought about children anyway. We survived, and that was all we needed. I saw graphic things that no children in the world should see. And I still remember the putrefying smell in the air that I am unable to forget.
My mom played the dad in “Life is Beautiful” and told me the source of the smell was the rotten watermelons. I knew she was lying, but I nodded and went along with it. For the first time in my life, I forwent my naughty instincts and wanted to be a docile child. That itself was a sign of the significant trauma I was going through.
The summer of 1999 was the worst summer of my life and robbed me of my childhood. I felt invisible as a child and was somehow forgotten. When I wanted something, I reminded myself of how some of my school friends died. I matured much faster after that, learning to care for others and disregard my emotional needs.
I was also sensitive to others’ moods because I saw how natural disasters could wreak havoc on people. I learned to tiptoe around adults, not to get in their way or irritate them. A child should never have to learn these traits. The earthquake didn’t only claim lives but also my generation’s childhood.
And now I am in Kobe, the epicenter of the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995. Kobe and Kocaeli have a lot in common, with Kobe being a port city like my hometown, Kocaeli. According to an article in Psychology Today, unconscious fear-related memories remain hidden from the conscious mind, but they can still affect our daily lives significantly.
Another article from VeryWellMind compares the mind to an iceberg. While the things above the water symbolize conscious awareness, everything under it represents the unconscious. The earthquake revealed something that had been buried deep in my memory.
And lastly, there’s “survivor’s guilt.” BetterUp defines survivor’s guilt as guilt when someone (or masses of people) experiences a loss while you did not. That’s how I felt in 1999 as a kid—I survived, was ashamed of being alive, and thus shrank myself and wished to be invisible.
The earthquake politics
And how could I have guessed the same boogeyman would haunt my people 24 years later? I watch the news in horror and am appalled by the lack of transparency and help from the government. Mayhem broke out in the country following the earthquake. Prices soared, and swindlers came out of hiding. We heard that some supermarkets and rescue trucks got looted.
The region is so unstable that the rescue teams are leaving over security fears. My heart goes to everyone who has suffered, regardless of their nationalities, ethnic backgrounds, and religions. And please remember that this particular region of Turkey doesn’t only consist of Turks. That has also created political tensions between different groups.
Meanwhile, Syria is left to its fate. I am so disappointed and heartbroken. The world turned a blind eye to what has been happening in Syria and rendered any chance of survival impossible.
I wanted to write this blog post to get these thoughts off my chest and raise as much awareness as possible. If you wish to make donations, please pay attention to where your money goes. The organizations I list here are trustworthy and recognized in my country.
Ahbap (Sustainable Solidarity & Collaboration Movement)
Akut (Search & Rescue Association)
In an ideal world, all survivors would receive therapy subsidized by the government. Yet, I know that isn’t possible in Turkey. All I can do is write about my experience because I am the only person I truly know. I understand how colossal the psychological damages of surviving a catastrophe can be.
And I know it’s not the type of story you wish to read on my blog, but I can’t bury my head in the sand while the world of my people is turned upside down. Thank you for reading this. Keep both Turkey and Syria in your prayers.
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