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Families are working to bury those who died in the Turkey-Syria earthquake

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Survivors of the earthquakes that struck Turkey and Syria last week enter a grim new phase of their struggle. At least 33,000 people have died. And their relatives are working to recover their remains and give them proper burials. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports that communities are forming to treat with respect those who have been lost.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Turkish).

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: On the outskirts of a cemetery overlooking the town of Pazarcik, Ali and Fatih Guul are preparing a grave for their uncle. The uncle's body is still trapped in the rubble of his collapsed apartment building. The brothers lost five members of the family in the quake. They're still waiting to bury three. Ali says, through an interpreter, that he wants his uncle's grave to be ready.

ALI GUUL: (Speaking Turkish).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER #1: They are originally from here, therefore, they bring their dead people here. They buried some of them who they could get out of the rubble. And they are waiting for the rest.

BEAUBIEN: The brothers have hired three gravediggers to dig the hole. The workers tell them the normal price for the work. But then quickly add, if you don't have any money, we'll dig it for free. Nearly 500 people from Pazarcik and surrounding villages have already been buried. Fatih is employed with the local municipal government. He says it's been a lot of work, but everyone will eventually be properly laid to rest.

FATIH GUUL: (Speaking Turkish).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER #1: "Pazarcik has 7,000 population. There is no undefined burial or funeral. We know everyone," he says, "because our family, our ties are too strong."

BEAUBIEN: There's a calmness at the cemetery in Pazarcik. That's not the case in the nearby city of Kahramanmaras, where the air is thick with wood smoke and dust from backhoes digging through the rubble of collapsed buildings.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK ENGINE RUMBLING)

BEAUBIEN: Right next door to an outdoor stadium full of white tents where hundreds of people are now living, there's a temporary morgue. It's inside a gym, but its parking lot also holds a soup kitchen.

FRITZ MERTENS: Family comes here, and we manage them to go right for food and go left for death human.

BEAUBIEN: Fritz Mertens is with a team of German undertakers called DeathCare. He says some people arrive in small cars with a family member wrapped in a sheet in the back. Another ambulance backs up to the front door of the gym/morgue, followed by a truck. They both carry more corpses.

MERTENS: Please, go by side because...

BEAUBIEN: Yes, absolutely.

MERTENS: ...We have delivery.

BEAUBIEN: The volunteers from Mertens' organization clean and disinfect the bodies. A doctor on site officially verifies the identity of the corpse, if possible. Then the German DeathCare team...

MERTENS: Close the body bag. If the body bag is damaged, we get a new one. And the family get a small piece of paper with the name on it. And with this, the next transportation is out of the town to the cemetery. And then they get buried.

BEAUBIEN: From the makeshift morgue in Kahramanmaras, relatives of the deceased can collect the corpses. But with thousands of people dead in this city alone, most families have nowhere to take them. All of the cemeteries are full. So most of the bodies are sent to a new mass grave on the outskirts of the city.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK BEEPING)

BEAUBIEN: A steady stream of corpses keeps arriving in ambulances, trucks and even private cars. A woman sits on the ground, caressing a full black body bag.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

BEAUBIEN: Each body is, at first, inspected and photographed by police officers. Then the corpse is zipped back into its bag and sent to be ritually washed according to Islamic custom. At the top of the hill, there are 19 tents for body washing.

(CROSSTALK)

MEVLUDE GUNEY: (Non-English language spoken).

BEAUBIEN: A group of female body washers takes a break by a small fire to warm up. They wear long blue surgical smocks over puffy winter jackets. Mevlude Guney says the women working here have come from all over Turkey to help in the midst of this catastrophe.

GUNEY: (Speaking Turkish).

BEAUBIEN: Guney is from a town which is 10 hours from here. At home, she's a teacher.

GUNEY: (Speaking Turkish).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER #2: Her mother was a ghusl. Ghusl is the name of the washing of the dead body. She taught by her mother. And she washed body before, but it is the first time working at emergency situation.

BEAUBIEN: The group of women say that this work is their duty as Muslims.

GUNEY: (Speaking Turkish).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER #2: They said they are volunteers. They say that this is our responsibility. This is our last job for the dead people.

BEAUBIEN: At just their tent, Guney and her colleagues say they've been washing 70 bodies per day.

GUNEY: (Speaking Turkish).

BEAUBIEN: A truck arrives with another body. Guney and her colleagues have to get back to work.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Singing in non-English language).

BEAUBIEN: Just outside Guney's tent, fresh graves extend down the hillside. As of this morning, there were more than 4,000 marked with simple pieces of wood. Multiple burials are happening at once across the rocky landscape. The graveyard is so vast that a woman frets that she'll never find her loved one's grave again.

(SOUNDBITE OF BACKHOE DIGGING)

BEAUBIEN: Backhoes claw trenches in the ground. Men lower the black body bags in one at a time. At some burials, there are a handful of relatives who watch and pray; at others, dozens. For the unidentified, soldiers and police are called to stand at the graveside.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Non-English language spoken).

BEAUBIEN: As soon as one body is covered with dirt, another arrives.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Singing in non-English language).

BEAUBIEN: And this is the scene in just one city, in one part in the sprawling quake zone. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Kahramanmaras, Turkey.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Singing in non-English language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.
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