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After the Quake: One Turkish Family’s Struggle

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Finally, 106 days after the ambulances rushed their battered bodies to the hospital, the couple were cleared to leave.

Ibrahim Karapirli hobbled back from physical therapy on crutches to protect his aching leg. His wife, Pinar, wrangled their twin toddlers, unsure how she would care for them with her one remaining arm.

The couple were still mourning their two sons who were killed when a powerful earthquake pancaked their six-story apartment building in southern Turkey before dawn last February.

Ibrahim and Pinar piled about a dozen plastic bags holding their possessions atop a wheelchair, bade the nurses goodbye and went to their car.

“God, please don’t let us end up here again,” Pinar said.

Ibrahim drove, despite a hulking plastic brace on his right leg. He was anxious to return to work and find a safe new home for his family, if it were possible for them to feel safe anywhere. As he pulled into traffic, a Turkish pop song mourning a lost love came on the stereo.

“Day after day, I have to forget about you,” the singer crooned. “Did you think our tears were over?”

For Ibrahim, 47, Pinar, 35, and their 2½-year-old twins, Elcin and Eray, the year since the Feb. 6 earthquake has been a painful quest to cobble together a new life, piece by piece, trauma by trauma.

The 7.8-magnitude earthquake, followed by a second violent temblor hours later, was the broadest and most deadly in the region in hundreds of years. It ambushed people as they slept, killing more than 53,000 in Turkey and injuring many more, and toppling so many buildings that some areas have barely begun to recover.

The Turkish government has promoted its recovery efforts, focusing on the aid delivered and the new buildings rising across the quake zone. But for the Karapirlis, who live in Gaziantep, that aid has failed to address their most pressing needs.

They have worked to repair and relearn to use their bodies. They have struggled to find a home they do not fear will kill them the next time the ground shakes.

The family members have had some hopeful moments, when strangers welcomed them into a new home, when their injuries waned, and when the twins finally stopped fearing their parents. And they have found new ways to care for each other while coping with the bottomless ache of all they have lost.

That four of the six members of the Karapirli family are alive at all is in many ways miraculous.

When the earthquake struck at 4:17 a.m., Pinar screamed to wake up the couple’s older sons, Erdem, 10, and Enes, 9. Then she rushed to the hallway to hand the twins to Ibrahim. They heard an overwhelming crack as the floor fell and the ceiling crashed down.

They landed in the dark, trapped in ruins. Ibrahim was kneeling, with rubble crushing his right leg. He was still holding the twins, who were unhurt.

Pinar was buried nearby with her arms raised as if surrendering to an armed robber. She had so much debris in her mouth initially that she could not scream. Erdem was entwined with her, his feet on her legs.

They called out to each other to see who was alive. Enes did not respond. Pinar had seen a hunk of concrete fall on him, and they guessed he was dead.

It was snowing, and they talked as the cold seeped in and the hours ticked by. The twins cried, and Ibrahim guessed they were thirsty. Desperate, he considered giving them his urine, but he was pinned in such an awkward position that he could not even pee. He gave them his tears, but then worried that the salt would exacerbate their thirst. So he gave them blood from a wound on his arm.

Erdem, who attended a religious school, recited scripture and did the Muslim call to prayer to keep their spirits up. Later, he grew angry.

“Enough is enough!” he yelled. “Why aren’t you coming to save us?”

On the second day, they heard voices. Ibrahim yelled, and a rescue crew burrowed down from the roof toward the family. By the time they reached them, Erdem had fallen silent. Pinar later recalled feeling the life leave his body.

Finally, 38 hours after the collapse, the rescuers took the twins from Ibrahim and passed them hand to hand down the rubble.

Ibrahim told them to save Pinar, who some of the rescuers assumed was already dead. They dug her out, laid her on a stretcher and lowered her to the street with a crane.

Then came Ibrahim, who wanted to smoke a cigarette and say goodbye to Erdem before he left the site. But the rescuers worried about his condition and rushed him to the hospital.

“I didn’t get that last cigarette,” he said, “nor to embrace my son.”

Ten of the 21 people in their building at the time ended up dead. The boys’ bodies were recovered and buried in a nearby cemetery. Their parents were in such grave condition that neither could attend their funeral.

“It was a life going beautifully,” Ibrahim said. “Then you fall into nothingness.”

Their family had begun years before, after Ibrahim saw Pinar in a photograph on a relative’s phone. Dating her was not an option because her family was conservative, so Ibrahim’s family went to visit hers. The couple were allowed only 20 minutes alone together, but both came out feeling optimistic. They were married less than two months later and danced with their friends to a live band.

Ibrahim worked in a bank, wore his hair in a slicked-back ponytail and lived his joys and furies out loud. Pinar was a few years out of high school and spoke softly even among her friends, who considered her fiercely loyal. He was 32, she was 20.

Their first son, Erdem, was born in 2012. Enes followed the next year.

The couple stretched their finances to buy an apartment that had been seized by the bank. It had four bedrooms and a large balcony overlooking a park. They often left the windows open so the perfume of blooming hyacinths and the sounds of summer concerts could waft up from below.

The boys learned to walk, talk and ride bikes in the streets, later wearing small ponytails like their father’s.

“We loved that place,” Pinar said, “and everyone who visited loved the place too.”

Ibrahim eventually left his job at the bank, and he and Pinar opened a sweet shop. A Bouquet of Cake, they called it. Soon, they were getting 100 orders for Valentine’s Day and had 6,000 followers on Instagram, where they lured in customers with their fruit bouquets and romantic medleys of rose-shaped cakes and strawberries dipped in chocolate.

In 2020, Pinar discovered she was pregnant again. One day, she returned home from a checkup looking terrified.

“Did you miscarry?” Ibrahim asked.

“No, it’s worse,” she said. “Twins!”

They arrived in June 2021, and Pinar could not keep up with four children and the shop, so they sold the business and Ibrahim got a job as a finance manager for a municipal company that built affordable housing.

About a year later, a small earthquake shook Gaziantep. Ibrahim felt the apartment tremble, but like most people in a region known for its long history of dangerous quakes, the family hoped for the best.

“All the neighbors were telling me, ‘Ibrahim, never sell this apartment!’” he said.

When the rescuers pulled out Ibrahim, his femur was broken in at least seven places, and his lower leg was crushed. The doctors operated repeatedly, screwing a rod to his bone to hold it together. Pinar’s face was so swollen that the twins did not recognize her. After three weeks of surgeries to save her arm, the doctors decided it should be amputated.

Ibrahim consoled Pinar, who said she feared not being able to wash or feed the twins or take care of herself. Ibrahim promised to help, to bathe and dress her, and never to grow tired of her.

“I will be your arm,” he told her.

With time and repeated surgeries, they stabilized and began rehabilitation. Ibrahim wore a leg brace and did excruciating physical therapy every day for his knee and ankle. He could barely walk, so he used a wheelchair to get to the hospital’s outdoor terrace, where he smoked, thought about his sons and cried alone.

Pinar could walk, but a large wound in her armpit opened and bled if she moved her shoulder too much. Still, when the Muslim holy month of Ramadan ended in April and guests visited the family for the holiday, she was well enough to receive their gifts of sweets and flowers. She served snacks, tea and coffee as they crowded onto a couch, a cot and a wheelchair around Ibrahim’s and Pinar’s beds.

The guests included another survivor from their building who had been trapped in the rubble by her hair until a firefighter passed her a knife so she could hack herself free. She had three cracked vertebrae and was still missing a chunk of hair, but said she had been lucky compared with Ibrahim and Pinar.

A firefighter who had found Pinar in the rubble and doubted that she was alive also visited.

“I am so happy to see you like this,” he told her.

The twins, who had been staying with Ibrahim’s brother, arrived dressed up for the holiday. Eray wore a crisp white shirt and black pants with suspenders, Elcin a black velvet hoodie covered with red sequins and a Hello Kitty bow in her hair.

They had visited the hospital frequently but had avoided their parents, as if they feared them. Did they associate them with those terrifying hours in the rubble? Were they scared of their injuries? No one knew. They easily recognized their brothers in photographs, but did not know they were gone.

The adults tried to keep the mood festive, but Ibrahim’s worries pulled him into forlorn silences. When would they heal enough to leave the hospital? Where would they live? How would they go on without their sons?

That morning, before the guests came, he had wheeled himself to the terrace and smoked while looking at a shopping center across the street where he used to take the boys. Each year, he said, he had bought them new outfits for the holiday. Enes, excited about the new clothes, had wanted to wear them ahead of time, when the students received their grades.

“I didn’t allow him to do it,” Ibrahim said. “And he never managed to wear them.”

As summer approached, Ibrahim’s and Pinar’s thoughts turned to life after the hospital. The question was where to live. Their own home was gone; any talk of rebuilding was highly preliminary; and they could not crowd in with Ibrahim’s brother’s family.

A man Ibrahim knew through work offered them an apartment rent-free for six months and promised to charge a reasonable rent thereafter. It was their only real option, so they took it.

The apartment was unfurnished, a painful reminder that they had also lost all of their possessions. They had no furniture, no kitchenware, no appliances, no linens, nor even much clothing — not to mention the other sundry items that fill up a home.

So on the day they left the hospital, nearly four months after the earthquake, they stuffed everything they owned in plastic bags that fit easily in the car.

“Did you think our tears were over?” the singer on the stereo repeated as they drove.

Approaching their new home, they were troubled to see how tall the building was: nine stories on top of a parking garage and a row of shops. Their apartment was on the top floor, leading them to imagine how far they would fall if it too collapsed in a quake.

They arrived to find their door decorated with streamers and balloons and the interior outfitted with furniture and housewares provided by a friend. The neighbors gave Pinar a bouquet of white flowers.

Everyone stepped inside and Pinar followed, looking at the group and smiling.

“Welcome,” she said, and broke into tears.

By then, their former building had been scraped down to the foundation, its remains dumped outside of town. In July, the surviving residents were allowed to watch as an excavator combed through the wreckage to see if they could find their stuff.

“It was like trying to dig a pit with a needle,” Ibrahim said.

Ibrahim hoped to find his collection of Zippo lighters, a copper drum, an antique radio, a sword that had belonged to his grandfather and some gold jewelry that Pinar had received from her mother. The real treasures would have been a hard drive, two computers and Ibrahim’s iPhone, all of which had held photographs of the boys.

But hours of digging yielded little: coats the boys had outgrown, a crumpled bicycle, a broken bed and Erdem’s backpack and wallet, moldy from the rain. The latter contained his transit card, which Pinar still carries in her purse.

After the earthquake, Ibrahim and Pinar felt the broad wave of generosity that swept across Turkey. But as time passed, most of the country moved on, and amid the couple’s continuing needs and medical battles, they came to feel estranged from other people.

There were those who, right after the earthquake, promised to help the couple, only to respond vaguely when Ibrahim followed up.

The couple resented friends and relatives who suggested, sometimes overtly, that they just needed to get over what happened and get on with life.

“Everybody forgot about everything,” Pinar said. “Right now, whoever tells me he understands me, he cannot.”

Ibrahim returned to work, but his salary could not cover the blow the quake had dealt to the family’s finances. He hated needing assistance.

“I always prayed to God to make me the giving hand, not the taking hand,” he said. “But now I need help.”

Their trials brought them closer as they compensated for each other’s injuries. Pinar drove Ibrahim to work with her one arm and took him food and tea when his leg was propped up. He helped her with two-handed tasks, tied her hair back, cut her fingernails.

Their emotional bond grew stronger, too, forged through shared grief.

“We have been through the same thing,” Pinar said. “We have the same pain — he as a father, I as a mother.”

She saved Ibrahim’s number in her phone as “My Companion in Suffering.”

More than two months after they left the hospital, Ibrahim was walking down the hall when his leg let out a crack so loud that his mother heard it in the living room and ran to find him moaning on the floor. He had broken his femur again, meaning yet another surgery and a second rod in his leg.

Half-conscious after the operation, he began talking about the boys, his voice getting louder as an attendant wheeled him back to his room.

“I couldn’t save you,” he cried, bringing family members and the hospital attendant to tears. “Erdem died! Enes died!”

Pinar took his hand and he opened his eyes.

“Pinar, they are gone!” he said.

Now he would be laid up for weeks — again. And the new apartment did not put them at ease, especially after they discovered cracks in the walls of the living room and their bedroom.

In the twins’ room, they kept a geography project that Erdem had done, with a volcano, a mountain, a peninsula and a sea made out of painted Styrofoam. He had left it at school before the quake, and his teacher had given it to Pinar after his death, the only thing they had made by his hands.

After a small earthquake in August frightened them, they started sleeping in a vacation bungalow owned by the municipality near a reservoir outside of town. It was a simple, one-story structure, with two rooms and basic furniture, built for tourists.

But they never really settled there, either.

Every day, Pinar and Ibrahim’s mother took care of the twins at the ninth-floor apartment and prepared a picnic dinner. When Ibrahim got off work, Pinar, with her one arm, drove the family to the bungalow, where they ate from disposable plates using plastic forks and drank from paper cups. They slept there, and in the morning, they packed the place up, only to repeat the same drill that night.

It was a bit like camping, but it felt safer than their new apartment.

“When the building shakes, there is nowhere to escape,” Ibrahim said one day at the bungalow. “Here, you can just run outside.”

Pinar struggled to close zippers and open jars. To fasten her veil on her head. The indignities of living with one arm never ceased, like the time she scraped the car in a parking garage and ran up the ramp in tears, feeling useless. Or the time her son grasped at her hand and was puzzled to find only an empty sleeve. She cried for hours after that.

But she adjusted. She got a purse she could close with one hand. The twins helped her change their diapers, holding the flaps in place as she fastened them.

She felt helpless in the kitchen, until an inspiring woman came to her aid.

Ezgi Kasisari was a Turk living in Britain. She had lost the use of her left arm to multiple sclerosis and had taken to social media to show how she was not only adapting, but living exuberantly.

“Born to be a miracle,” her Instagram bio declared.

Pinar saw a video of Ezgi cutting food with one hand on a special cutting board and messaged to ask where to get one. They chatted. The next time Ezgi came to Turkey, she brought Pinar a cutting board.

It had rubber feet and a suction cup to keep it steady, pins to hold produce and meat in place for cutting with one hand and an attachment for opening jars.

Soon after, Pinar sent a photograph of chopped carrots, greens, tomatoes and cabbage to a WhatsApp group of her friends.

“Girls, I made the salad on my own,” she wrote. “I also cooked today’s meal without getting help from anyone.”

Her friends flooded the chat with joyful emojis.

As the anniversary of the earthquake approached, Ibrahim and Pinar were still healing, slowly.

The government had stopped paying for their medical care when they left the hospital, but they got free physical therapy through Ibrahim’s work and went most days.

Pinar did exercises that tore the skin in her armpit and made it bleed. The goal was to make her shoulder strong and flexible enough to support a myoelectric arm, a prosthetic with movable fingers that she could operate with the muscles in her stump. But they were expensive, and it was not clear who would pay for it.

She also had phantom pains in her missing arm that sometimes felt like her wrist was being electrocuted.

“The part that doesn’t exist aches,” she said.

Ibrahim’s femur appeared to be healing better the second time, and he was working to regain mobility in his knee and ankle. But his injuries had left his right leg more than an inch shorter than his left, which could be fixed only with a complicated surgery that would take him off his feet for months.

He could not bear the thought and said he would wear a lift in his shoe instead — as soon as could walk without crutches.

In late December, a sharp pain erupted in his abdomen and he was hospitalized with severe gallbladder inflammation. His doctor said that its cause was unclear, but that the trauma of the earthquake could have played a role.

After yet another surgery, he and Pinar returned to the apartment on the ninth floor with the cracks in the walls because the weather had gotten too cold to sleep at the bungalow.

Their efforts to find a new home of their own had hit dead ends.

Their main asset before the quake had been their apartment. But with the building gone, all they owned was a share of the property deed for a now-empty plot of land.

The government has announced a program of grants and low-cost financing to help survivors like them rebuild. But even one year after the quake, Ibrahim, Pinar and their former neighbors have failed to get clear guidelines on what they are allowed to build. They are all also grieving, making it hard for them to agree on a plan and navigate the bureaucracy.

Ibrahim was torn. He dreamed of buying a stand-alone house that was less likely to collapse in an earthquake. But they could not afford to buy one outright and were still mourning the loss of the building where they had been so happy.

“There are memories on every stone,” Pinar said of their old neighborhood.

Recently, Pinar’s friend Fatma Kaplan took her to buy a new iron. As they drove home, Pinar told Fatma that the woman who had bought the sweet shop from her and Ibrahim had gotten in touch to say that she had found old voice messages from the boys on the business’s WhatsApp account. Did Pinar want them?

“Are you crazy?” she had replied. “Of course, I want them!”

There were more than a dozen messages, each a time capsule from a lost life.

Pinar played them out loud in the car.

There the boys were, their voices pouring out of her phone, joking, engaging in adolescent antics and saying they were soooooo hungry to persuade her to make a favorite dish.

Fatma cried so much she could not see the road. Pinar laughed with sheer joy.

“When you listen to them, you smile,” she said. “As if they are alive. As if they have just gone somewhere and will come back soon. It is not like a year has passed. It is like yesterday.”

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