The photograph with this story was taken by Charla Jones on the outskirts of Van, one of the cities in eastern Turkey that suffered a major earthquake on Oct. 23.
The woman in the red sweater is named Fatma Dushkan, 29. She’s a mother of four children, including her three-month-old son Mohammed who lies swaddled on the floor of their makeshift tent.
When you write the words “makeshift tent,” it hardly feels like enough description. Ms. Dushkan’s abode consisted of a few tarps held up by sticks, not really enough to keep out the freezing rain, and barely large enough for Charla, me, and a translator to clamber inside and conduct a short interview.
As we reported in the Saturday paper, bad weather has forced an estimated 600,000 survivors of the quake to make difficult choices about where to sleep: inside buildings that may collapse, or outside in the cold.
Turkey is a nation of builders, famous for its civil engineers and construction firms, but snow has already arrived in the earthquake zone and it will be hard to get everybody sheltered quickly enough to prevent people from freezing to death.
Many people prefer to take their chances outside, instead of staying indoors while aftershocks are rumbling underfoot: Ms. Dushkan’s husband locked her and the kids out of their house while he was away, because he worried they would be tempted to go back to their warm – but dangerously cracked – cinderblock dwelling. Their tent did not look entirely safe, either, because they had stretched an electric cable through a series of mud puddles to run a quartz heater under the plastic tarps, but they seemed more worried about food. “The baby is hungry, always crying,” Ms. Dushkan said.
Something that always amazes me about these disasters is the way they open windows into ordinary lives that usually stay hidden. The view can be ordinary, as when a kitchen wall collapses to reveal a still life of house plants perched on counters and lace curtains undisturbed on their rods.
In the case of Ms. Dushkan and her neighbours, the quake revealed how many people around here already have experience with homelessness. Turkey escalated its long-running war against Kurdish insurgents in recent weeks, but the conflict is already about three decades old, and has become part of the everyday routine in this part of the country.
Ms. Dushkan considered it unimportant to mention that she previously camped outdoors 11 years ago, when a military offensive forced her out of her village in Hakkari province. “The soldiers pushed us out and burned our houses,” she said, in passing, just as we were saying goodbye.
It turned out that several of her neighbours had also run away from the same offensive. She declined to comment about whether she believes it’s been more difficult for them to get help from Turkish authorities after the earthquake because of their Kurdish ethnicity, although that’s a complaint we heard elsewhere in the east.
Journalists are not aid workers, and we usually try to maintain some professional distance from these crises. But meeting Ms. Dushkan made me glad that we were carrying blankets and other supplies provided by our friend Jonathan Lewis in Istanbul. We pulled them out of the car, handed them over, and drove away down the muddy road.
If you’re also interested in making a donation, one of the most visible aid groups in the earthquake zone is the Turkish Red Crescent, affiliated with the Canadian Red Cross.