After the recent devastating earthquake that left more than 40,000 dead in Turkey and Syria, firefighters sent by the Brazilian government and also volunteers traveled to the most affected region to help with rescues.
One of the volunteers is the captain of the Minas Gerais Fire Brigade Leo Farah, who arrived in Turkey on February 8, two days after the earthquake, accompanied by colleagues from the NGO Humus. The organization’s team, led and founded by Farah in 2021, responded to a call from the UN. Volunteers have expertise in disaster and rescue techniques and have been helping civilians by coordinating rescues.
Farah, who experienced remarkable tragedies in Brazil, such as Brumadinho and Mariana, spoke with the DW this Wednesday (15th) and reported how the work days on Turkish soil have been. He and his team are based in Gaziantep, in the southeast of the country, close to the Syrian border.
“The population is in shock. We noticed a mixture of intense pain among those who lost something or someone and collaboration from those who wanted to contribute in some way, including helping our team”, he says.
“When they ask the reason for Humus to go to Turkey when there are so many problems to solve in Brazil, we answer that, if it were our son under the rubble, we would ask the whole world to cross an ocean to save him”, he says.
DW: What’s the situation more than a week after the earthquake?
Leo Farah: The impact was huge. In conversations with other international volunteer teams there is also the impression that this is the greatest natural disaster of the last century. We estimate that the number of victims will approach or even exceed 200,000.
It is worth remembering that rescue teams have so far acted with priority in locations where there are still signs of life, using equipment that identifies sounds or heat. Therefore, as this window of survival closes and rescues of fatal victims become the priority, the death toll unfortunately must increase dramatically.
Added to this are all the people who will suffer the consequences of the earthquake because they are homeless, cold, hungry and having difficulties in getting medical care.
What were the main challenges in those first days of work?
For a non-profit association, an NGO like Humus, the first challenge is always the immediate displacement. Every second matters. There is still no cooperation or agility for an emergency response with airlines, making the cost of purchasing tickets very high for us to quickly embark the team and equipment on commercial flights. And in the event of an earthquake, local airports and roads are also affected by destruction or increased traffic.
Like us in Brazil, other teams of volunteers specializing in rescue are also looking for a way to access the affected region — which still has to deal with the population that wants or needs to leave the area. There are certainly other challenges, such as having a capable team that is available to leave their family, home and business at any time to embark on a mission in which information is complex and resources are very limited.
Despite having fewer resources, the advantage of an NGO is that it is more agile in making the decision to accept the mission. As soon as it received the UN alert, the Humus team was the first of specialized volunteers from Brazil to arrive in Turkey.
How did the population and the authorities receive you?
The population is in shock. At first, we noticed a mixture of intense pain among those who lost something or someone and collaboration from those who wanted to contribute in some way, including helping our team. Through social networks, we received thousands of messages of support, including people offering to go to the risk area and participate as interpreters, since language is another barrier we face. They offered rides, shelter and food.
Despite understanding that everyone should be more prepared for a disaster like this, we do not believe that any country in the world is prepared for an event of this magnitude. As it is something that impacts the world and needs everyone’s help, the UN plays a fundamental role in convening, integrating and organizing international teams, especially those that are not linked to governments.
How is the rescue work going with the authorities?
We act following guidelines and requests for help from the Turkish Emergency and Disaster Management Agency, which is equivalent to the national Civil Defense in Brazil. Considering our expertise in locating and rescuing victims, the agency indicates where there may be people still alive.
As the impacted area is very extensive, in most of the regions we visited, we saw many residents and construction workers who were doing searches at first. In addition to risking their own lives, this initiative without the minimum of technical knowledge in rescue can even harm an area where there are still people alive. For example, when using a heavy excavator over rubble, any air pockets can be pressed and compacted.
Gradually, we noticed that the country’s security forces began to occupy more areas in the affected territory, helping to organize the rescue teams and preventing family members from entering risk areas – preventing looting and other episodes of violence from increasing in the midst of despair. .
Are there parallels between the current drama of Turkish families and that experienced by Brazilians after the Brumadinho and Mariana disasters?
In the disaster with the collapse of a mining company’s tailings dam in Brumadinho, I was still captain of the Minas Gerais Military Fire Brigade and was at the head of the search and rescue battalion. Our team managed to arrive quickly by helicopter, and we already knew that the number of victims would be very high. Unlike Mariana, when we also arrived quickly and managed to remove more than 700 people from the route in that sea of mud.
In Turkey, we knew that we had to be prepared to find many victims. But unlike mud which occupies spaces, in an earthquake there can be pockets of air between the structures of buildings and buildings. Many are damaged, but not completely gone.
For example, on the fifth day after the earthquake, we participated in a search of a site where we checked for signs of life. After more than 40 hours of tireless work, we found a large area, like a basement in the building, where there was even running water. There could have been living people there, but unfortunately that was not the ending we found and that we would like to tell.
Do you plan to leave Turkey or go to Syria?
Humus deployed a small group of professionals specializing in rescue for what we call rapid intervention, targeting the main window of survival, from seven to ten days after a disaster. This team began to prepare a few hours after the earthquake and began a long journey, leaving Belo Horizonte and arriving in Turkey two days later.
Since we arrived in the region where the impact occurred, we have been working intensively on many searches and rescues. Unlike military teams and others with more resources, it is possible to rotate professionals in shifts for a longer journey in the mission. Thus, our plan was to stay in Turkey for a week. However, due to what we found, the many requests for help and the demonstrations of support we received, we decided to extend our stay for a few more days and we should arrive in Brazil next weekend.
How can Brazilians help earthquake victims?
There are many responsible independent organizations that already operate in the region and that are closely monitoring what is the greatest need at every moment. A disaster awakens solidarity, especially among Brazilians.
When asked why Humus was going to Turkey when there are so many problems to solve in Brazil, we replied that, if it were our son under the rubble, we would ask the whole world to cross an ocean to save him.