By Susana Vera
ISKENDERUN, Turkey (Reuters) – Tasked with burying hundreds of victims of Turkey’s massive earthquakes, undertaker Ali Dogru brought his wife and four sons to live in an old bus by the cemetery where he works in the city of Iskenderun, so he 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 sheltering in tents, container homes, hotel resorts, university dormitories and even train carriages after hundreds of thousands of buildings collapsed and others were left unsafe.
Shortly after the first earthquake struck on Feb. 6, Ali, 46, moved his family to the cemetery from their damaged apartment to shelter in a bus at the site. They have been living there since.
In his more than six years working at the cemetery, Ali typically buried around five people a day. The first night after the earthquake he buried 12. The daily numbers then soared. Within ten days of the quake he had arranged the burials of a total of 1,210 victims.
He can cope with living in a cemetery, he said. But having to deal with so many burials at once 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 feast of Eid al-Adha.
“As a butcher, I used to see people bring lambs in their arms to be sacrificed. It hit me very hard when I saw people carrying 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 tens of imams who came 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 coming and saying that the bodies were not buried,” he said, adding 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 stopped people from separating them. “I said, ‘death could not separate this child from the mother or the father. Why would you do so?'”
In Islamic tradition bodies are buried only in a shroud.
Ali also helped officials photograph unidentified bodies, take fingerprints and blood and DNA samples. He later showed families to the graves of their relatives, after they had been found through blood tests.
Ali’s sons spend most of the day with their mother since 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 amid fears of aftershocks.
Ali fears for their psychological state, but could not find anyone to care for them away from the cemetery.
“I plan on taking them on holiday once we’re all settled,” he said. “They saw all the people with bodies in their arms because they were with me.”
Ali’s wife Hatice said they had seen many bodies around the bus, mostly children.
The family went hungry for the first three days sheltering at the cemetery as everyone worked to hold funerals. The children didn’t complain, 43-year-old Hatice said. Her older sons were doing well, she said, though her youngest son started biting his nails and asking to go home.
They slept on blankets for the first few days, then wooden boards and recently received beds to sleep on in the bus.
The family had lived only seven months at their house, which authorities said sustained little damage. While Hatice is comfortable going inside, Ali is more cautious. “We’re trying to overcome our fears,” he said.
Hatice hopes they can move back in at the end of April and has been cleaning up there to prepare
“I’m thinking of going back home after Eid,” she 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 house.”