Psychotherapist writes from Türkiye’s earthquake-devastated city of Adiyaman, where he is helping survivors deal with their loss and trauma.

February 6, 2023. I woke up with contentment after having finished a tedious two-day documentary shoot on mental health in Kashmir, my home state, far away from my workplace in Türkiye for the past six years.  

When I read the news of the earthquakes that had affected 11 provinces in south-eastern Türkiye, the first thing I did was call my wife and ask about her and the family’s well-being. They were well, but from her tense tone, I knew it was time to return to Türkiye after a month well spent with my family. 

I flew immediately from New Delhi to Istanbul, carrying field manuals and books for psychological first aid, which I had packed haphazardly due to my stressed mental state. The budget airline then charged me a hefty sum, almost equal to the flight ticket, for the extra baggage, despite my pleading. I was at the airport five hours before the flight, yet the last one to board due to the immense crowd. Little did I know that these glitches would mean nothing compared to what I would experience and witness.

By the time I landed in Istanbul, our clinical supervisor and coordinator at IPAM – Ibn Haldun Psikoterapi ve Arastirma Merkezi or Ibn Haldun Centre for Psychotherapy & Research – were both surveying the earthquake-affected areas. And it did not look good. 

We had a three-hour-long clinical training session with our supervisors on providing psychological first aid immediately to the victims of the earthquakes. It was decided that our team of 50 therapists would work on the ground in rotations lasting at least a week. The project was planned for a year to meet the growing needs for mental health and psychosocial support. The first group of fifteen clinical psychologists left immediately for Adiyaman, while I was tasked with making posters for children and adults for relaxation and calming. We distributed these in the relief camps.

Afterwards, I got the call to join our second group of volunteers. As I had recently returned from India, my wife did not want us to live apart and also decided to volunteer with me. It was also because just two months before the earthquakes, we had done a two-week tour of south-eastern Türkiye and loved the hospitality and warmness of the people. We wanted to do everything we could to help. 

We landed in the late evening and stayed in a state-run dormitory whose bunker beds reminded me of my younger university days going a decade back. I rested on the lower bunk while my colleague took the upper one. Every time he turned or made any slight movement, I woke up with a fearful feeling of experiencing an earthquake. In the morning, I was sleep deprived but also contemplating how the actual earthquake must have felt to the millions of people. It filled me with a sense of gratitude and humility. 

With the morning sun, the reality and magnitude of the earthquakes also dawned before me. As the transport shuttle started moving, all I could see was debris and silence, like the one after a storm had passed. Adiyaman had suddenly transformed into a ghost town. We reached Egricay province, where more than 400 tents had been pitched. 

When we entered the campsite, it felt like a dystopian town. There was this sense of gloom in the air. Suddenly, my heart started sinking. Our first group handed over the duties and action plan to us. Now the ball was in our court. I have worked in relief camps for Syrians and Rohingyas before, but this felt different and more personal. Perhaps because Türkiye has been my second home for six years now, and people have showered me with their kindness and hospitality to the extent that I never felt like a foreigner in this country. 

The same goes true for this Adiyaman campsite. I was welcomed with open arms, and once people discovered that I was a foreigner, which is clear from my heavily accented Turkish, I got all types of questions – from how I learned the language to how I met my wife. Such curiosity led to bonding and people opening their emotions to me. Many mentioned that it was the first time they did so or laughed after the earthquakes. 

Like the snowball effect, children and young men especially started pooling around to meet the ‘white Indian guy’ who speaks Turkish. 

I spent a great amount of time talking to the soldiers who have been here since day one, leaving behind their families and children whose photos they showed me. They have done an incredible job of maintaining law and order and pitching every single tent and being an essential part of search and rescue teams alongside AFAD. 

Each morning we visit the families in various tents in pairs and assess their psychosocial needs. Slowly, the people started recognising me and calling me by my name. They send their children to us to play. And once again, I realised that children are smarter than we think. They have vivid memories of the earthquakes and the loss of their homes and family. They express it through drawings, most of them of homes and buildings – things which they have lost. 

We also have individual meetings with the victims. I met an older lady who had lost 21 members of her family. I met a young man who, in total, lost 229 members of his extended family. And then there are those living with the survivor’s guilt, like the man I met who lost his daughter but wished it were him instead of her. Everyone has lost someone close, and this has created a common bond among the residents of the campsite. Whoever I talk to has an incredible amount of faith and gratitude. I hardly hear anyone complaining. Faith is the bonding factor which is making people go through each day here. 

Personally, I am grateful and content for being here. Every day, I see enormous hope and gratitude in people. Everyone on the campsite is trying to help others in every way possible. The police, army, teachers, doctors, cleaners, psychologists, students, and even the affected families have this remarkable unity which is beautiful to witness. 

As psychologists, we believe that when stories are told in a safe space, it leads to the processing of emotions and healing. This is already happening, and I am glad about it. But it is almost a month since the earthquakes, and we also see a rise in cases of complex trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

Initially, the victims are in a survival mode to meet their basic needs, known as the acute stress period. Over time, as reality sinks in and things settle down, they must come to terms with the reality of loss, which can turn into PTSD or complex trauma and prolonged grief disorder if left untreated. And that is where our work as clinical psychologists comes in.

There is suffering and healing too. There is trauma and resilience too. I will be going back to Istanbul soon till our next clinical rotation. Till then, our other groups will take over. I am scared to leave for now and sad too. But every end is also a new beginning. As I write this with love from Adiyaman, it reminds me of the saying, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. I believe we have taken the first step, but would this city and its inhabitants ever be the same? 

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Source: TRT World