With Fingerprints, DNA and Photos, Turkey Seeks Families of the Missing

When a powerful earthquake struck southern Turkey last month, a lawyer concluded that her relatives had been buried in the rubble of their collapsed apartment.

Three days later, rescue workers recovered the bodies of her mother and brother, she said, but days, then weeks, then a month passed with no sign of her father. His disappearance plunged her into a terrifying mystery faced by families across the quake zone whose loved ones are still missing.

“I can’t find my father anywhere in the world — not under the rubble, not in the hospitals, not anywhere,” said the lawyer, Mervat Nasri, who is from Syria.

Five weeks after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake and a powerful aftershock struck southern Turkey, killing 47,000 people, many others remain unaccounted for, adding ambiguity to the temblor’s complete toll and leaving families in an agonizing limbo. More than 6,000 people were also killed across the border in northern Syria.

The Turkish authorities have provided scant information about how many people are missing, making the scope unclear. One indication is the number of unidentified bodies buried in cemeteries. Ahmet Hilal, a professor of forensic medicine at Cukurova University in Adana, said his research in the afflicted area found that there were currently about 1,470.

Recent interviews with experts, survivors and officials involved in the recovery efforts indicated chaos in the disaster’s first days, with injured people dispatched to faraway hospitals where they may have died without their relatives’ knowledge, and unidentified bodies hastily buried because rescue workers had no place to store them.

In the weeks since, the Turkish authorities have begun using fingerprints, DNA tests and photographs to try to link unidentified bodies with their next of kin.

One branch of that effort is in a rocky lot in Narlica, a town in Hatay Province, one of the areas most heavily damaged by the quake. On a recent day, police officers and prosecutors worked in metal shipping containers, which have been used as quake-proof shelters. A stream of families came by, hoping to find traces of missing loved ones.

The police recorded the names of missing relatives and checked a database to see if they had been found elsewhere. Families that found matches received death certificates, photographs taken before their relatives were buried, and the cemetery names and grave numbers where they had been laid to rest.

Those whose relatives’ names were not in the system watched a large screen as the police scrolled through hundreds of photographs of unidentified bodies, many of them disfigured, hoping to see a face they recognized.

Some families came away with nothing. They gave blood for DNA tests that would be crosschecked with samples taken from unidentified bodies before burial.

“I checked more than 150 photos. I couldn’t take it anymore,” said Suheyl Avci after leaving the container to smoke a cigarette. “My brother is continuing now.”

More than two dozen of Mr. Avci’s relatives had been killed in the quake, he said, but he was still searching for an aunt. He had heard a rumor that a woman with her name had been pulled from the rubble alive, but he had not managed to find her.

Other families received painful confirmations of loss.

“He was like a mountain, my son,” cried Makbule Karadeniz, 62, after recognizing her dead son Sait, 35, in the photographs.

The quake on Feb. 6 destroyed hundreds of thousands of buildings across southern Turkey, ruining some hospitals, overwhelming others and creating chaos that made it easy for relatives to lose each other.

After the quake, Sakine Nur Gul, 27, navigated a blizzard and roads clogged with emergency vehicles to reach her family’s building in the city of Antakya, finally arriving 19 hours after it had collapsed, she said.

Assuming her relatives were entombed inside, she waited by the rubble as rescue workers dug for bodies and survivors, she said. But when they reached the basement on the sixth day, they had not found her relatives.

So she began a painful, weekslong odyssey to find her mother, father and brother, who were among 28 people missing from the same building.

Thinking they could have been pulled out alive soon after the quake, she visited hospitals and graveyards throughout the area and gave blood in the hope that her DNA would lead to a match.

Early on, she said, she found sprawling expanses of new, numbered graves, but no one to explain who was buried where, she said. Some hospitals refused to show her photographs of unidentified patients in their intensive care units, citing privacy concerns.

As the search dragged on, the birthdays of her missing brother and father passed, she said. Nine days after the quake, her father’s bank sent his last automatic mortgage payment for the family’s now nonexistent apartment.

She has struggled to maintain hope that they are still alive, while feeling unable to grieve until she is sure they are dead.

“How long are we going to have to wait?” she said.

Previous earthquakes in Turkey left many people unaccounted for.

More than 18,000 people were killed in a quake near Istanbul in 1999. To this day, 5,840 are officially still missing, most believed to have been interred without being identified. They are not included in the death toll.

After last month’s quake, around 5,000 unidentified people were buried across the quake zone, said Mr. Hilal, the professor of forensic medicine. But in the weeks since, he said, that number has gone down to around 1,470 because many of the buried bodies have been identified through DNA matches and other methods.

People could have disappeared in different ways, Professor Hilal said. Overwhelmed rescue workers buried bodies before they were identified, although in most cases, they collected photographs, fingerprints or blood. Others could have been charred by fires in the rubble, making identification difficult, he said.

Other remains could have been hauled away accidentally when rubble was removed, Professor Hilal said, but this was unlikely because many people waited near buildings until their relatives had been found.

In the end, Professor Hilal said he expected the number of missing people to be lower than in 1999, when the state could not match DNA and did not have fingerprints for as many Turkish citizens and residents.

But for many families, the uncertainty continues.

In the days after the quake, Reema Baliqji and her two sons were rescued from the rubble of their building, she said, and the bodies of her husband and younger daughter were recovered. But her older daughter, Fariyal Idris, 17, was missing, as was a 15-year-old girl from another family who had been rescued and sent away in an ambulance.

At the shipping containers in Narlica, the police found records for her husband and younger daughter, prepared death certificates and gave her the locations and numbers of their plots in a sprawling new cemetery nearby. She also received a surprise: the burial location of a niece with the same last name who the family had not even known was missing.

But there was still no trace of her older daughter.

“We will wait and see what happens,” Ms. Baliqji said.

Gulsin Harman contributed reporting from Istanbul.