By: Shubham Ghosh
A paramedic leaving her 18-month twins behind to serve the call of duty, officials processing hundreds of documents to prepare more than 140 passports overnight and rescuers not being to able to take a bath for 10 days, the National Disaster Relief Force’s (NDRF) mission in quake-hit Turkey was full of challenges — emotional, professional and personal.
They returned to India after the difficult mission, a part of their heart still thinking if “we could have saved more lives”, yet a part filled with the love and affection they received from the affected people, one of whom, grieving the death of wife and three children, ensured deputy commandant Deepak got his vegetarian food wherever he was deployed.
“Anything vegetarian he had like an apple or a tomato. He peppered it with salt or local spices to make it tasty.” Deepak said he was deeply moved by what Ahmed was doing for him. The entry of three 152-member NDRF teams and six canines into the disaster zone was swift, and their exit “moving and emotional”.
They said they developed a bond with the people they helped during their most vulnerable times. Many Turkiye nationals shed tears of thanks and gratitude to their ‘Hindustani’ friends and ‘Biradars’ who came in as saviours and took the combat patches and other military decorations from the uniforms of the Indian rescuers.
The federal contingency force that began its operation on February 7, rescued two young girls alive and retrieved 85 bodies from the debris before they returned to India last week.
Indian prime minister Narendra Modi felicitated them on Monday at his official residence at 7, Lok Kalyan Marg. More than 44,000 people have been killed in the massive 7.8-magnitude earthquake and series of strong aftershocks that struck parts of Turkiye and neighbouring Syria on February 6 flattening thousands of buildings and homes.
“The Consular Passport and Visa (CPV) division of the ministry of external affairs prepared passports for our rescuers overnight. They processed hundreds of documents in minutes as the Indian government directed the NDRF to proceed to Turkiye,” NDRF inspector general (IG) N S Bundela told reporters in New Delhi.
Another officer said out of the 152, only a few officers had a diplomatic passport ready to travel to a foreign land, and hundreds of documents were sent in from NDRF teams in Kolkata and Varanasi over fax and email to be processed for making of the passports.
“Turkiye gave our teams a Visa on arrival and we were deployed in Nurdagi (Gaziantep province) and Hatay as soon as we landed there,” second-in-command (operations)-rank officer Rakesh Ranjan said.
Constable Sushma Yadav (32) was among the five women rescuers who were sent for the first time to a foreign disaster combat operation. This meant leaving her 18 month-old twins behind. But she had no second thoughts.
“Because if we do not do it, who will?” “I and another male colleague were the two paramedics of the NDRF team. Our job was to keep our rescuers safe, healthy and nourished so that they can do their work without getting sick in the sub-zero temperature which fell as much as minus 5 degrees in Turkiye,” Yadav told the Press Trust of India.
“I left my twins with my in-laws and this was the first time I left them for so long. But there was no difficulty in volunteering for the operation.”
Sub-Inspector Shivani Agarwal said while going for the operation was not a problem with her parents, but the longing for a chat to know about her wellbeing was difficult.
“There is a time lag of about 2.5 hours between India and Turkiye. So by the time I got free and called them up it was 11:30 in the night. They picked the call on the first ring as if they were literally holding on to the phone,” Agarwal said. Constable Rekha, who joined the force in 2020 from the ITBP, said they reached out to women who were struck by the disaster even as they helped in preparing logistics for the rescue teams.
Deepak said, “Ahmed somehow got to know I am a vegetarian. For days, he kept following my place of deployment anywhere I was working in Nurdagi and secretly handed over anything vegetarian he had like an apple or a tomato. He peppered it with salt or local spices to make it tasty.”
“He hugged me and called me Biradar. This is something I will never forget,” Deepak said. Second-in-command-rank officer V N Parashar, who led his team on the ground, showed multiple military patches that are carried on police and army uniforms, that were handed over to him as a token of gratitude even as his and that of his team members’ ‘NDRF-India’ and NDRF logo’ chest and arms badges were taken by the locals as a memory of the ‘friends from India’.
Parashar said he and others received WhatsApp messages from a number of people who wrote ‘thanks’ to them and got it translated to Hindi from Google before sending it to them.
“The locals did not know Hindi or English. What we saw was the language of humanity and respect for India. We wish we could have saved more lives…but what we received there was such love which cannot be earned easily,” Parashar said.
A number of NDRF rescuers said many people spoke to them emotionally about Indian movies and actors such as Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, Deepika Padukone and some others and even clicked selfies with them saying “if you meet them say Turkish people love them.”
“There was a local woman volunteer who could hum bits of a Hindi movie song and can even match its dance steps…we bonded very well in doing what we were supposed to do,” sub-inspector Agarwal said.
Sub-inspector Bintu Bhoria informed how none of the rescuers could take a bath for all the 10 days they were in Turkiye. Another officer said the NDRF personnel took a sponge bath and dug trenches to defecate and urinate.
“However, we ensured we cleaned all the locations that we lived at. While returning, we only brought along the love and affection of the Turkiye people and donated our tents, food, personal clothes, warm clothes etc. for the locals and the Turkish rescuers,” NDRF officer Vipin Pratap Singh said.