In a year in which earthquakes in China, India, Italy and Guatemala killed up to 700,000 people, the temblor that rocked eastern Turkey on November 24, 1976, may have seemed to be just one more calamity. But this earthquake—Turkey's fourth in 13 months—was its worst in 37 years. Rescue operations, furthermore, would be hampered by distance, terrain and weather; for Van, a Turkish province close to the border of Iran, is a remote area where a forbidding landscape is swept by icy winds and snow. In Ankara, therefore, 800 miles to the west, there was a note of grim urgency in the air as one of the oldest relief organizations in the world went on full alert. This was Kizilay, as the Red Crescent Society is known in Turkey, which in the days ahead would play a key role in saving the survivors of the disaster.
The earthquake had struck at 2.24 p.m. It was a brief 14-second tremor, but in those few seconds its immense power flattened two towns, scores of farm villages and nearly every building within a 30-mile radius of a place called Caldiran. It also left some 3,800 persons dead and more than 8,000 families homeless on an isolated, wintry plateau.
The first alarm had gone out quickly, and, two and a half hours later, as the full extent of the disaster reached Ankara, the Turkish Red Crescent was already gearing up for action.
According to Kizilay's silver-haired president, Professor Recai Ergruder, there are two stages to earthquake relief. One is emergency aid, the other reconstruction, with the first stage largely the responsibility of the Red Crescent. Kizilay, therefore, with an efficiency honed to perfection by the three recent earthquakes in Turkey, quickly marshaled a 75-member relief force of doctors, nurses, drivers and cooks at the 108-year-old organization's headquarters in Ankara's main square. Simultaneously its administrators assembled four ambulances, a mobile surgery, three Land Rovers, four field kitchens, plus tents, blankets and medical supplies, and swiftly loaded them aboard four military aircraft.
Meanwhile another 5,000 tents, 1,700 blankets, 45 tons of food and a 25-bed field hospital were being packed on a special relief train—dubbed the "Earthquake Express"—and immediately dispatched on a 36-hour journey to the temblor's epicenter: a rocky, 5,700-foot plateau between Lake Van and Mount Ararat where, the Bible says, Noah's Ark came to rest (Aramco World. March-April, 1973) and where some of Turkey's worst winter weather rages for six months of the year.
Bad weather, however, also closed in on Ankara's Esenboga Airport that day. As a result, the airborne relief force was grounded and it was not until first light the following day, November 25, that the four big-bellied Hercules transports carrying the Red Crescent emergency squad—along with the ambulances, field kitchens, tents and medicines—were cleared for takeoff.
The flight was short. At 7 a.m., less than 17 hours after the earthquake, the four Hercules landed on the eastern shore of Lake Van. There, air force helicopters and government trucks whisked the Red Crescent relief teams to Muradiye and Caldiran, the two towns leveled by the first temblor.
Even for seasoned members of the Red Crescent's emergency squads the first sight of the disaster was appalling: corpses piled up in the open, the injured sprawled on the ground, women and children huddling together for warmth against the icy winds and flurries of snow slashing across the barren plateau and silently sifting onto the wreckage of homes, shops and barns.
By 9 a.m. the Red Crescent team was in action. Quickly sorting out the critical cases, the relief teams airlifted them to hospitals of Ankara while doctors on the scene taped splints on broken arms, swathed cuts and bruises and, a key step in major disasters, gave inoculations against the epidemics that always stalk the victims of such disasters. Simultaneously they set up the mobile field kitchens and, from steaming cauldrons, began to serve hot food to the dazed and hungry victims. Others from the team set up tents, moved in portable stoves and distributed blankets.
Meanwhile, at Van airport, which normally handles two commercial flights a week, cargo planes—jammed with supplies from the United States and Western Europe, as well as Turkey's Muslim neighbors in the Middle East—began to land at hourly intervals. Included were tents from Iran, food from Pakistan and medicine from Iraq. Saudi Arabia, the heartland of Islam, instantly provided a cash donation of $5 million.
For four days relief personnel in cooperation with government and army officials worked around the clock. Hampered by snowfalls—and aftershocks—they fed, clothed and sheltered the stunned survivors while, throughout Turkey, volunteers from the organization's 654 branches collected blood, money and warm clothes.
Four days after the earthquake, on November 28, six inches of snow fell on Van, underlining fears that the homeless would freeze to death during the sub-zero Anatolian winter unless quickly rehoused. In response, Osman Altin, governor of Van, declared a state of emergency, commandeered all available vehicles and sent them into the mountains to bring survivors to the towns. And again the Red Crescent was on hand. For those who could not squeeze into schools, warehouses and other municipal buildings, the Red Crescent, aided by American airmen, put up 2,000 heated, heavy-duty U.S. Army tents in Van, Ercis, Muradiye and Caldiran. "We will look after them until the government builds them new homes," said Tayyar Hindistan, chief of Red Crescent Relief operations in Van.
Earthquakes are not new to the Middle East. Time and again, over the centuries, violent shifts in the earth's crust have leveled cities and towns in the Middle East, especially in Turkey, Iran and Syria, killing and injuring hundreds of thousands of people. According to available records, earthquakes have rocked Medina, in Saudi Arabia, Beirut, in Lebanon and Jerash, Nablus and Jerusalem in Palestine.
Some areas have been struck repeatedly. Jerusalem, for example, has endured 84 earthquakes. But Turkey, which straddles one of the world's most active seismic zones, has been worst of all. In Eastern Turkey, for example, earthquakes destroyed Antioch in 115A.D., 458 A.D., 526 A.D., 588 A.D., 1183 and 1972.
In those centuries, of course, there was no Red Crescent in the Middle East. Although its origins are said to date back to the 12th century—when the Caliph Saladm permitted the Knights of St. John to cross Muslim lines to care for wounded Crusaders—it was not formally organized until 1868. Nevertheless it has since played a vital role in relief work. In recent times the Red Crescent has seen service in at least seven wars on four continents, as well as helping relieve the sufferings of victims of great urban fires and epidemics.
Besides doing emergency relief work, the Red Crescent, today, runs seven blood centers, a nursing college, 20 hospitals, six youth camps, research and plasma-processing laboratories, roadside first-aid stations, dispensaries, soup kitchens and student hostels throughout Turkey. The Red Crescent even operates its own tent factory to keep up with the recurring disasters.
The Red Crescent's independence is guaranteed by the Turkish constitution. It receives no direct cash grants from the treasury and government officials and politicians are forbidden to serve on its 1,300-man permanent staff. Its independent $2.5-million annual income comes from such diverse sources as bequests and real estate rents, the sale of hides from sheep sacrificed at a major Muslim religious festival, and from small change deducted from horse-race winnings. It also has a monopoly on sales of X-ray films, drugs, vaccines and serums in Turkey.
The emblem of the Turkish Red Crescent can be seen not only on ambulances and hospitals, but on the tops of soda-water and mineral-water shipped all over Turkey from its own income-earning bottling plant at Afyon. But to the grief-stricken men, injured women and hungry children in tragically devastated towns such as Caldiran, the sight of the red crescent moon of Islam on a white background means much more. It means that help has arrived. And with it, hope.
John Lawton, a veteran UPI correspondent, now free-lances from Istanbul.