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'Waiting for our dead': Anger builds at Turkey's earthquake response

Monday's quake left thousands dead in Turkey and Syria and millions without homes
— Gaziantep (Turkey) (AFP)

With every passing moment, Ebru Firat knows the chances dim of finding her cousin alive under the rubble of a flattened building in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep.

And with that fading hope, the 23-year-old's grief is being replaced by rage at the government's earthquake response.

Monday's 7.8-magnitude pre-dawn tremor killed more than 7,800 people across swathes of Turkey and Syria, injured tens of thousands and left many more without shelter in the winter cold.

"I have no more tears left to cry," she said.

Despite the importance of every minute, no rescue team arrived at the scene in the critical first 12 hours after the disaster, forcing victims' relatives and local police to clear the ruins by hand, witnesses said.

And when the rescuers finally came on Monday evening, they only worked for a few hours before breaking for the night, residents told AFP.

"People revolted (on Tuesday) morning. The police had to intervene," said Celal Deniz, 61, whose brother and nephews remain trapped.

- 'No help' -

In the miserable cold, Deniz and his relatives try to warm themselves around a fire they lit in the open air, not too far from the destroyed building.

In Gaziantep where violent aftershocks continue to shake the province, residents lack everything

"There isn't anywhere that our rescuers cannot reach," Turkey's Red Crescent chief Kerem Kinik declared in a TV interview.

But Deniz disagreed.

"They don't know what the people have gone through," he said.

"Where have all our taxes gone, collected since 1999?" he asked, referring to a levy dubbed "the earthquake tax" that was implemented after a massive earthquake destroyed large parts of northwestern Turkey and killed 17,400 people.

The revenues -- now estimated to be worth 88 billion liras, or $4.6 billion -- were meant to have been spent on disaster prevention and the development of emergency services.

But how this money was actually spent is not publicly known.

If there aren't enough rescuers, volunteers say they will have to step in and do the hard work themselves.

"We go to places to help people who were originally supposed to be rescued by the Red Crescent, but where no help comes," said Ceren Soylu, a member of a volunteer group set up by the right-wing opposition Iyi Party.

- Opposition warning -

The Iyi Party's presence on the ground delivers a warning to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan -- whose chances of extending his rule into a third decade in May elections could hinge on his handling of Turkey's worst disaster in decades.

No rescue team arrived at the scene in the critical first 12 hours after the disaster, witnesses said

In Gaziantep, where violent aftershocks rumble on, residents lack almost everything. Shops are closed, there is no heat because gas lines have been cut to avoid explosions, and finding petrol is tough.

Only bakeries remain open, drawing long queues.

Some of the worst damage in Gaziantep's eponymous province took place in the most remote districts, where hundreds of buildings have collapsed.

"The roads have been partly destroyed, it's very difficult to bring aid to these areas," said Gokhan Gungor, a cook who volunteered to distribute food to survivors.

"People lack water and food there," he said.

Many survivors are feeling abandoned as they also battle cold weather, especially since many rushed outside without even having time to put on shoes when the quake struck.

On Tuesday afternoon, rescuers and search dogs were deployed again.

But it was too late, said one woman, refusing to give her name for fear of retribution from officials, as she told AFP her aunt was still buried in the rubble.

"We're now waiting for our dead," she said.

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