Displaced Syrian children sit at a temporary accommodation centre erected to support people affected by a devastating earthquake in Gaziantep, Turkey, February 14, 2023. Image Credit: Reuters

Geneva: More than seven million children have been affected by the massive earthquake and a major aftershock that devastated Turkey and Syria last week, the United Nations said Tuesday, voicing fear that "many thousands" more had died.

"In Turkey, the total number of children living in the 10 provinces hit by the two earthquakes was 4.6 million children. In Syria, 2.5 million children are affected," James Elder, spokesman for the UN children's agency Unicef, told reporters in Geneva.

Turkey's Vice President Fuat Oktay said 574 children pulled from collapsed buildings were found without any surviving parents.

Only 76 had been returned to other family members.

Death toll
The disaster, with a combined death toll in Turkey and neighbouring Syria now exceeding 37,000, has ravaged cities in both countries, leaving survivors homeless in the bitter cold, at times sleeping on piles of rubble.


Trauma haunts kids after quake

One voluntary psychologist working in a children's support centre in Hatay province -- where the level of destruction was some of the worst in Turkey -- said numerous parents were frantically looking for missing kids.

"We receive a barrage of calls about missing children," Hatice Goz said by phone from Hatay province.

"But if the child still cannot speak, the family is unable to find them."

'Are we going to die?'

The disaster has also exacted a psychological toll. In a tent city near the quake's epicentre in Kahramanmaras, father-of-four Serkan Tatoglu, 41, described how his family was haunted by their losses as they waited out the aftershocks.

"The youngest, traumatised by the aftershocks, keeps asking: 'Dad, are we going to die?'" Tatoglu said of his six-year-old.

Their building crumbled in one of the nearly 3,000 aftershocks. More than 35,000 have died across the region and the toll is likely to keep climbing for days. Tatoglu lost nearly a dozen relatives.

But the 41-year-old knows he has to stand strong in the face of his unbearable heartache.

Tatoglu's first job is to shield his children from the horrors that keep popping into their heads as they wait out the aftershocks in a tent city near the quake's epicentre in southern Kahramanmaras.

Syrian father, Hassan Moath, plays with Ahmad, his 9-year-old son, who is a quake survivor, at a makeshift shelter in a school run by UNICEF where psychological first aid is provided, in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake in Aleppo, Syria February 13, 2023. Image Credit: Reuters

'I can't do anything'

Psychologist Sueda Deveci of the Doctors Worldwide Turkey volunteer organisation said adults need as much emotional support as children in the aftermath of such a tragedy.

She said older generations were quicker to internalise the profound scale of how much their lives have changed -- and just how much they have lost.

"One mother told me: 'Everyone tells me to be strong, but I can't do anything. I can't take care of my kids, I can't eat'," Deveci said while working in the tent city.

Deveci is gaining better insight into what the children are feeling from what they draw as they while away the time in the cold.

In pictures

This photograph shows a teddy bear on the rubble of a collapsed building on February 12, 2023 in Kahramanmaras, as rescue teams starts to wind down their work after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the border region of Turkey and Syria. Image Credit: AFP

"I don't talk to them about the earthquake much. We are drawing. We will see how much of it is reflected in their drawings," she said.

For now, their art is mostly normal.

Child rights expert Esin Koman said this was because children adapt to their surroundings more quickly than adults.

But she added that the quake's destruction of existing social support networks left them dangerously exposed to long-term trauma.

"Some children have lost their families. There is nobody now to provide them with mental support," Koman said.

Europe's worst natural disaster in 'a century'

The World Health Organization's Europe branch has described last week's massive earthquake, the epicentre of which was in Turkey, as the region's "worst natural disaster" in 100 years.

The 7.8-magnitude earthquake, followed by a major aftershock, on February 6 has now killed more than 35,000 people in Turkey and neighbouring Syria.

"We are witnessing the worst natural disaster in the WHO European region for a century and we are still learning about its magnitude," Hans Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe, told a press conference.

Kluge also said the health body had "initiated the largest deployment of emergency medical teams" in the 75-year history of the WHO European region, which includes Turkey.

"Twenty-two emergency medical teams have arrived in Turkey so far," Kluge noted, adding they would integrate into "Turkey's ongoing health response".

'Where's my mum?'

Psychologist Cihan Celik posted one exchange on Twitter he had with a paramedic involved in rescue work.

The paramedic told Celik that kids pulled from the rubble almost immediately asked about their missing parents.

"The wounded children ask: 'Where's my mum, where's my dad? Are you kidnapping me?'," the paramedic recalled.

One voluntary psychologist working in a children's support centre in hard-hit Hatay province said numerous parents were frantically looking for missing kids.

"We receive a barrage of calls about missing children," Hatice Goz said by phone.

"But if the child still cannot speak, the family is unable to find them."

Happy thoughts

Selma Karaaslan is trying her hardest to keep her two grandchildren safe.

The 52-year-old has been living with them in a car parked along one of the debris-strewn roads of Kahramanmaras ever since the quake struck.

Karaaslan tries to talk to them about anything but the quake. She figures that they are much less likely to have haunting memories of the disaster if she fills their heads with happy thoughts.

But the questions still come.

"Grandma, will there be another earthquake?" the six-year-old demanded at one point.