Red balloons mark youth killed in devastating Turkey earthquake

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Dozens of red balloons speckle the rubble of a destroyed building alongside a main road in Turkey’s quake-hit south.

They are the final tribute to children killed by the earthquake that devastated Antakya, according to Ogun Sever Okur, who is behind the memorial.

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The effect is striking, the bright balloons contrasting starkly with the dusty grey of the rubble and twisted metal that once made up a nine-floor building.

Against the monochrome backdrop, a handful of possessions attest to the young lives lost in the earthquake.

Ogun Sever Okur, 38-year-old Turkish man inflates balloons on the debris of a collapsed building in Antakya, southern Turkey on February 21, 2023. (AFP)
Ogun Sever Okur, 38-year-old Turkish man inflates balloons on the debris of a collapsed building in Antakya, southern Turkey on February 21, 2023. (AFP)

A purple toy emblazoned with cartoon images of Daisy Duck and Minnie Mouse lay forgotten near a pink scooter and a fuchsia anorak decorated with love hearts.

“Three children died here. They were 18 months, four years and six years old,” said Ogun Sever Okur.

Okur, who grows roses and is a photographer, volunteered as a rescuer in the days after the earthquake in his hometown of Adana, before heading to Antakya 200 kilometers (125 miles) away.

“I started here and then moved on to the building behind. This area struck me. I couldn’t sleep for several nights because we couldn’t rescue the children from here,” he said.

Eight days after the quake, Okur began tying balloons to the ruins in the city of 400,000 people, now a ghost town disturbed only by diggers and lorries removing rubble.

More than 42,000 people were killed in Turkey in the earthquake though Turkish officials have not yet said how many of those were children.

While the speed of the emergency response in Antakya was widely condemned, father-of-two Okur said there was no political motive behind his work, instead emphasizing its sentimental meaning.

Since 2020, he has supported underprivileged children through his association, providing youngsters with toys and food, and in some cases prosthetic limbs or operations.

He said the balloons were “the last toy (he could) offer” to young victims, attaching as many as 1,000 to five or six buildings in Antakya.

Red balloons typically “represent joy, love,” he said.

But in Antakya, after the earthquake, “this is the first time a balloon has made us cry.”

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