‘It was a heartwarming mission’: Rescue teams return from Turkey-Syria to hero’s welcome

  • Gift of the Givers rescue teams have returned home safely to a hero’s welcome after spending 10 days in Turkey and Syria which were struck by a devastating earthquake earlier this month.
  • Cape Town rescue workers Simpiwe Sobuwa and Raina Gihwala said a part of their hearts were still with those who are yet to find their loved one’s bodies.
  • The duo say the K9 dogs played a crucial role in discovering bodies buried under the rubble. 

Humanitarian organisation Gift of the Givers (GOTG) teams on a 10-day search-and-rescue mission to earthquake-ravaged Turkey and Syria, landed back in South Africa on Saturday morning – at the Cape Town International and OR Tambo International Airports respectively.

On arrival, Western Cape Premier Alan Winde and his senior staff, Turkish Consul General Sinan Yesildag, the rector and senior management of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), and the Habibia Brigade welcomed the team at the airport while in Johannesburg, Turkish ambassador, Aysegul Kandas, embassy staff, and the SAPS K9 Unit representatives received the group. 

Kandas said she was “grateful” for the teams’ safe return home.

“We are grateful for the teams that rescued our people and all the assistance donated by our brothers and sisters,” Kandas added. 

Shortly after landing in Cape Town, Dr Simpiwe Sobuwa, the acting head of CPUT’s department for Emergency Medical Science, and lecturer Raina Gihwala, who were part of the rescue teams, said the mission was one they would never forget. 

“It was a heartwarming mission, the visuals that were shown on TV and online were nothing compared to what I got to experience first hand,” said Sobukwa.

“I remember one rescue in particular, where an 80-year-old woman was rescued from the rubble she was buried under, by the team, which also included the K9 unit and the Omani search and rescue unit.

“That was a moment I’ll never forget, because we couldn’t believe it,” said Sobukwa.

Dr Qasim Bhorat, one of the team’s rescuers, previously told News24 the woman was dehydrated although she was “relatively well”.

He said the team had extracted several bodies of deceased people before the K9 dogs directed them to the woman: 

She was relatively well after being stuck under the rubble for eight days. It’s a surreal feeling. We look at the videos now and tear up because that is our purpose. Finding someone and pulling them out is miraculous, and it has boosted the team’s spirits to the point that we will push again tomorrow. It’s never too late. People are told no one can survive beyond day six, and yet we found a live person.

Sobuwa said the K9 dogs played a crucial role in the rescue teams trying to rescue people that were alive.

“We let the dogs first go to the sites where we’d hope to find people… as the dogs did their sniffing around we all gathered around in anticipation as we waited for a signal from the dogs.

“When we got the signal we rushed to the spot to see who and how we can assist. I think deep down we were all crossing our fingers and praying that we found more people alive. It was heart palpitation moments.”

According to Sobuwa, when he got home he enjoyed a well-deserved braai with loved ones. 

“A good braai and enjoyment in the sun just sealed the deal to be back home again, because it was incredibly cold that side, especially at night.

“Even though I’ve missed home very much, a part of my heart is still in Turkey with those left to still find closure,” he said.

For Gihwala, the language barrier in a country that doesn’t speak that much English was one of the challenges she experienced. 

“Everyone in the country was all hands-on when we landed, if we needed anything help was available even though we struggled at times to understand the language.

“We were made to feel comfortable, those giving us information tried their level best to make sure we understood what they were trying to bring across to make the rescue mission a success,” Gihwala added.

Gihwala, who is a lecturer at the Department of Emergency Medical Sciences at CPUT, said it was an emotional experience trying to explain to family members why the team couldn’t go into certain areas and why they couldn’t locate certain items or their loved one’s bodies. 

She said: “Even though I’m grateful to be back home with my family, a part of my heart is left in Turkey because there is still so much that needs to be done to assist those families who need closure and who still have hopes of finding their loved ones alive. As much as we all tried to do as much as we could to help, my heart bleeds because there is so much more I wish I could’ve done to help those families affected by the earthquake”.

She said the first thing she did when she got home was to lay in bed with her family and “…lived in the grateful moment”.

“One would think that the first thing I’d do was get into a shower, considering the circumstances and environment we were in, but all I wanted to do was lay with my family without any outside noise and just converse and touch base with each other,” Gihwala added.

Both Sobuwa and Gihwala said the standing ovation they received at the airport was “overwhelming and very special”.

Premier Winde was among the scores of people who waited for the team at the airport, commended them for flying the flag high for the country:

I commend Gift of the Givers for the work they do, both here at home, and abroad in times of desperate need. The work you do is outstanding. The NGO is flying our flag high. These women and men who put their hands up when the call came for help are doing us proud. You are heroes, not just to us but to the Turkish people you helped too.

Winde added that when the Turkey foreign mission in South Africa requested its help, Gift of the Givers didn’t hesitate to respond, calling in disaster risk management and emergency personnel from across the country to join the international drive to help the people of Turkey.

Dr Imtiaz Sooliman expressed his gratitude to the many people who sent the team well wishes and kept them in constant prayer.

“We thank South Africans for their prayer, kind words, encouragement, and incredible generosity. A special thanks to the top command of the SAPS for releasing the K9 team in less than 12 hours and to Airports Company South Africa for the incredible support at the airports on departure and facilitating arrangements for a huge reception on arrival.

“The final appreciation goes to the families of the team for their sacrifice as this intervention is extremely high risk and could result in loss of life of their loved ones,” Sooliman added.