Turkey earthquake

Portugal’s earthquake team helps grieving families

“It’s not just removing bodies”

The Portuguese rescue team in Turkey is currently focusing on recovering bodies for waiting relatives, trying to provide a dignified operation and recognising that it is not only a body that is removed, it is a story that ends, writes Lusa.

If at first, when the Portuguese team found a corpse, operatives just left a technical mark indicating the body’s presence and continued looking for the living. The strategy has now changed.

As of Monday, in collapsed buildings in Antakya (southeastern Turkey) where bodies are known to be, the team is trying to recover them to ensure that families can mourn after the earthquakes that destroyed such large swathes of the country and neighbouring regions of Syria.

“Since Monday, by indications from the Turkish authorities, the mission is to find dead people and recover them” from the rubble, Joaquim Santos, the second commander of the Portuguese operation in Turkey, told Lusa today.

Throughout the process, there is a concern about delivering the body to the relatives to be the “most dignified possible”, the team’s INEM doctor Inês Simões explains.

“It’s not just removing bodies. It is the end of many stories,” she stressed, adding that a poorly done bereavement “can cause traumatic experiences.”

“Whether you believe in another life or not, it is a body. It is always an end,” she said.

INEM psychologist Joana Anjos tells Lusa, “this intervention is very important”.

On Sunday, in the city centre, the team removed a couple of about 30 years from the rubble. The woman was four months pregnant; had just found out the sex of the baby.

The pair were both ‘still hugging’; locked in an embrace.

“It is not two dead bodies. They are two bodies hugging,” says Joana Anjos.

Today, work took place in southern Antakya, in places where the Portuguese team had already been on Wednesday and where they had identified bodies.

The team arrived at a building where two people were removed alive and with an indication of a body in the basement area of the building severely affected by the earthquake.

Operatives identify the place where the body is and decide to proceed with the use of drills and jackhammers to open a hole in the wall.

A woman lies on her bed inside, dead.

Joana Anjos looks for the relatives and talks to them.

“If we find an object of the person, we try to understand who wants to receive the object, we explain in what condition it is, and we always try to anticipate for the person what comes next. We also try to understand if they want specific clothes to wrap around the body when it comes out, or if they want to see it,” she adds.

Joana Anjos speaks English to the victim’s son, Mehmet, aged 28.

She explains that she is going to see the body, and then she will tell him what state it is in so that the son can decide if he wants to see it or not.

Nearly an hour later, a simple wooden coffin appears for the body, brought by the family.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” several of those present say in Turkish, while a family member calls out the woman’s name: “Leila, Leila!”

When the body is taken away, properly covered and placed in the coffin, Mehmet makes a point of hugging, one by one, all the Portuguese members of the team.

He lost his mother and his sister, who died in hospital after being pulled alive from the same ruins.

“Sometimes I feel crazy”, he confides. He was working in Dubai when the earthquake hit, and travelled over as soon as he could.

As he hugged each member of the Portuguese team, he told them: “I will never forget you”.