Earthquake: In Antakya, “nothing is left,” says Fr Francis, except the “stench of death”
by Dario Salvi

The parish priest speaks about the reality of destruction; the bell tower, the minaret, the synagogue, everything has been destroyed. He talks about the people who could not be saved, like "a mother with her child”, something that “still hurts”. Ecumenism in pain means, “I celebrate funeral rites for Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants.”


Milan (AsiaNews) – In Antakya (Antioch) “nothing is left; we have no electricity or water, we sleep out in the open". Across the city “all one can breathe is the stench  of death” and those who can, flee to Marsin or other places in search of shelter, this according to Fr Francis Dondu, parish priest at the Church of Saints Peter and Paul.

Antakya is one of the worst areas struck by the earthquake that devastated large parts of Turkey and Syria on 6 February.

“Nothing is left of the church bell tower, the minaret, the synagogue,” he explained. “I have been here since day one, to try to help in a situation of extreme need, to bury the many dead.”

Casualties keep piling up by the day and the toll now stands at 41,219 confirmed deaths, 35,418 in Turkey alone, the worst natural catastrophe in the country’s modern history.

Never, in a hundred years, has an earthquake of such devastating magnitude occurred; however, some small tales of hope have brightened the otherwise gloomy reality.

In the city of Adiyaman, a 77-year-old woman, Fatma Gungor, was pulled from the rubble 212 hours after the main quake, and is now in hospital.

“The earthquake struck while everyone was asleep,” said Fr Francis. Originally from Bangalore (India), he came to Turkey a missionary in 2007 at the invitation of Bishop Luigi Padovese.

"I remember that the church (rectory) moved like a boat in the open sea. We immediately ran outside and I started taking in, helping people who were screaming. We did our utmost to serve many people, moving them out of houses in ruins or in danger of collapsing.

“Some we could not save,” like a mother with a small child "who was screaming desperately for help, but there was nothing we could to do. Thinking about it still hurts.”

"As a priest I made the obvious decision to stay, at least until all the parishioners found a shelter,” the priest said.

"Even today huge digging machines are removing the rubble; dust is everywhere. Some roads have just reopened and people are moving, many seeking shelter in tents while aid is starting to arrive after two or three days of being cut off because the roads were closed or shattered.”

“We are here to help; if nothing else, we bury the Christian dead. Now there are no distinctions; I celebrate funeral rites for Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants.”

In fact, among the many emergencies, there is “burying the dead;” for this, “We have set aside a burial ground.”

As the digging goes on, “we find warped bodies; the smell of death is overpowering, going out and walking around the city is scary because you have to breathe this stench.”

The needs are huge, but "not much can be done" and everyone just wants “to go away".

"We went through a gigantic trauma from a psychological point of view. I myself was deeply affected. At night, it is impossible to sleep; sometimes, you feel new tremors. Last night, we had a 4.2 quake between 3 and 4 am, immediately sparking great fear.”

“It will take years, at least five or more, to rebuild everything, but some symbols of the past have now been lost forever.” In human, economic, historical, and spiritual terms, the overall damage is enormous.