Turkey: After the Afyon quake, anxiety and stress in tent city

By Arzu Ozsoy in Ankara, Turkey
Using its hard-won experience of the massive 1999 earthquakes, the Turkish Red Crescent Society (TRCS) has been working with local authorities to meet the emergency needs of people caught in the quake in the western province of Afyon, in which more than 40 people were officially said to have died earlier this month.

Assessments confirmed that the first big test of new procedures since the 1999 quakes was largely passed, with aid flowing relatively smoothly from outside the affected area and emergency response undertaken efficiently by both the government and the TRCS.

But there is still the need for psychological support and counselling and thousands of people are living in tents outside their homes, even though these may not be seriously damaged. Local authorities and aid workers fear that because of stress and trauma after the quake, which measured 6.0 on the Richter scale, people might stay in tents for quite some time, despite the conditions. In the aftermath of the quake, temperatures fell as low as minus 10 celsius.

Seismologists and the media have forecast that Turkey will face another major earthquake within the next 30 years. And this makes the aftershocks and minor tremors that occurred after the Afyon quake harder to ignore. People are rarely less than concerned - sometimes panicked - by aftershocks. Either way, their stress levels increase markedly.

Mukerrem Pinar, a forty-seven-year-old widow living with her grandchildren, managed to salvage only a pet bird from her house, which was completely destroyed. As the children play with her pet she describes her current state of mind: "We are all psychologically affected - especially the children. As grown-ups we are busy dealing with many issues, such as finding new accommodation and getting compensation; this stops us sinking into deep depression. But the children are really desperate. They have nothing to do. They play in the dirt all day long. They are getting bored and this causes anxiety. Something has to be done immediately for the children."

A five-member Red Crescent psycho-social support team is on hand to provide counselling, in cooperation with the Turkish psychological association and with International Federation support. "In Afyon, acute anxiety showed up earlier than expected," says Dr Ugur Ozdemir, mental health social psychologist of Hacettepe University.

He explains that after the assessment stage, the priority is to train the psychological teams to 'de-stress' themselves, and to "help others to cope with their lives in their own way." Key decision-makers such as local officials will also get help and guidance.

The Red Crescent and its partners, including the Federation and the United Nations Children's Fund, now plans to provide trauma counselling and training at individual and community levels over a six-month period.

The experience of Emine Erbil, a new Red Crescent relief worker, showed also how important it is not to overlook the stresses that rescuers may be going through. "This was my first disaster," she says. "I have been in disaster preparedness training and applied what learned to my personal efforts. But I couldn't deal with my own state of mind during the emergency phase. After the long hours, I just ended up in tears at nights. We as aid workers need psychological support just like others."