By Susanna Vera
ISKENDERUN, Turkey (RockedBuzz via Reuters) – Tasked with burying hundreds of victims of Turkey’s terrible earthquakes, undertaker Ali Dogru has taken his wife and four children to live in an old bus near the cemetery where he works in the town of Iskenderun, so they could know they were safe.
Last month’s devastating earthquakes killed more than 54,000 people in Turkey and Syria and left millions homeless. Survivors are taking refuge in tents, container homes, hotel resorts, college dormitories and even train cars after hundreds of thousands of buildings collapsed and more were left unsafe.
Shortly after the first earthquake hit on Feb. 6, Ali, 46, moved his family to the cemetery from their damaged flat to take refuge in a bus at the scene. They have lived there ever since.
In his more than six years working at the cemetery, Ali typically buried about five people a day. The first night after the earthquake she buried 12. The daily numbers then soared. Within ten days of the earthquake she had arranged the burials of a total of 1,210 victims.
He can handle living in a graveyard, he said. But having to deal with so many burials at once has left him with deep mental scars.
A former butcher, Ali likened the sight of people carrying their dead family members to the cemetery to people carrying lambs as sacrificial offerings for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.
“As a butcher, I saw people carry lambs to be sacrificed. It really hit me when I saw people bring their children, their partners,” he said.
With so many burials to arrange, Ali had to find heavy machinery to dig graves and coordinate with the scores of imams who have come from all over Turkey to help.
“All I wanted was one thing: to work day and night to finish this job. I didn’t want people to come and say that the bodies weren’t buried,” she said, adding that there were no mass graves.
Ali said he buried some children and parents who died in each other’s arms in the same grave and prevented people from separating them. “I said, ‘death cannot separate this child from its mother or father. Why would you do that?'”
In Islamic tradition, bodies are buried only in a shroud.
Ali also helped officials photograph unidentified bodies, take fingerprints, and blood and DNA samples. She later showed the families the graves of their relatives after they had been found through blood tests.
Ali’s children spend most of the day with their mother as schools are still closed. They play among the graves with their cousins, who live with Ali’s brother Emrullah and his wife Asli in a tent next to the bus. The family also moved to the cemetery for safety and in fear of aftershocks.
Ali fears for their psychological state, but cannot find anyone to care for them away from the cemetery.
“I plan to take them on vacation once we’re all settled,” she said. “They saw all the people holding bodies because they were with me.”
Ali’s wife Hatice said she saw many bodies around the bus, mostly children.
The family went hungry for the first three days of hospitalization at the cemetery as everyone worked to hold the funeral. The children didn’t complain, said Hatice, 43. Her older children were fine, she said, although her younger son started biting his nails and asked to go home.
They slept on blankets for the first few days, then wooden planks and recently were given beds to sleep on on the bus.
The family had lived for just seven months in their home, which authorities said suffered little damage. While Hatice is comfortable entering, Ali is more cautious. “We’re trying to overcome our fears,” he said.
Hatice hopes they can go home at the end of April and has been cleaning there to get ready
“I’m thinking of going home after Eid,” he said, referring to the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr, which comes after Ramadan, a month of fasting.
“Where can we go if we leave this place? I don’t want anything. I just want my home.”
(Writing by Ali Kucukgocmen; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)