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Turkey Faces Psychological Aftershocks of Deadly Quake

By Mary Beth Sheridan

For Nilgun Ulgen, Turkey’s deadly earthquake never ends.

Night after night, the 20-year-old is trapped once again under the concrete chunks of her devastated five-story apartment building. People are screaming. Everything is pitch black. She cries desperately: “Help! Get me out!”

Then she wakes up. She is safe, in a makeshift wood-and-plastic tent, her worried mother at her side.

Like Ulgen, tens of thousands of survivors of the Aug. 17 earthquake in northwest Turkey are beginning to suffer psychological aftershocks such as fear, despair and nightmares. The massive scale of the loss produced an unusually high level of depression for a natural disaster, say Turkish psychologists. Some victims are expected to experience the kind of severe trauma suffered by Vietnam veterans.

Turkish government hospitals, aid groups and psychologists are scrambling to set up counseling clinics and hotlines. But they are concerned that this developing country lacks the professionals and resources to cope with widespread psychological problems.

“Thousands will begin to experience the memories. They’ll have flashbacks, fear, depression. This is what’s coming,” warned Emre Konuk, president of the Istanbul chapter of the private Turkish Psychologists Association.

In the days after the magnitude 7.4 quake, survivors were numb with shock and terrified of another temblor. But for many, the impact of the disaster -- whose death toll as of Friday was at least 13,472 -- didn’t sink in. Victims threw themselves into digging out loved ones or finding shelter.

Now that most survivors have settled into tents, however, they are being hit with an emotional tidal wave as they come to grips with the sudden jolt that shattered their lives.

Ulgen and her three siblings try to block out the memories of the quake that destroyed their grandmother’s house, trapped them for hours and killed their 18-year-old sister and 11-year-old brother.

“When you ask them about the disaster, they don’t want to talk,” said their father, Hudaverdi Ulgen, who was in the Netherlands when the disaster occurred.

But at night, the four siblings lie awake on their mattresses, unable to sleep. When they finally nod off, the tent fills with murmurs. In their dreams, they are reliving the disaster and their fear as they waited to be rescued.

A doctor visits the family’s tent daily to examine the 80-year-old grandmother’s cuts and bruises. But there is no treatment for the family’s psychological wounds. Hudaverdi Ulgen snorted at the idea, insisting that the family will forget their pain and go on.

Thousands of survivors, however, are expected to seek psychological help. Government hospitals have set up a 24-hour hotline and are scrambling to establish psychological clinics in devastated cities.