“Can never forget the faces”: NDRF heroes talk about Turkey relief operations

Sandeep Tomar listened for six years to the tales of his former National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) colleagues who travelled to Nepal during the 2015 earthquake as part of the Indian rescue mission. Personnel of the paramilitary forces are deputed to the NDRF for seven years, and during the final year of Tomar’s assignment, he had begun to fear he would never take part in an overseas heroic expedition.

Later, on February 6, as a series of earthquakes struck Turkey and Syria, resulting in one of the most devastating natural disasters in recent history, he was told to pack his luggage.

India started Operation Dost with the intention of aiding the Turkish authorities with relief activities, and dispatched NDRF and Indian Army forces. Since Nepal in 2015, no NDRF crew had participated in an international SAR operation of this type.

Tomar was called up within hours of the occurrence.

“On February 6, at 11.30 a.m., I was instructing a group of volunteers at the NDRF campus when I was informed that we needed to prepare for a mission in Turkey. We were instructed to bring our possessions and go to the administration office immediately. As first responders, we are required to always have our belongings packed. “Within an hour, we were outside the administration office submitting online paperwork for our passports,” explained Tomar.

His comrades Amarpal Singh and Neeraj Kumar, among others, stood in line outside the administration office on the 8th battalion campus of the NDRF.

Four vehicles carrying 51 individuals left for Hindon airport at 6 p.m. Tomar was present in one.

It was long after midnight when they departed. Inside the special flight to Turkey, the 51 men, now known as the “India 10 team,” attempted to notify their families of their journey. At 2:50 am, Constable Neeraj sent a WhatsApp message to his wife, whose number was saved in his phone as “Madam” “Main ja raha hoon. Bye. (I am leaving. Farewell),” the telegram read.

On February 7, Tomar’s wife was born. At 3 a.m., he sent her a text that read, “Happy Birthday, my life partner. Alright Bye Bye. Apno aur bacho ka khayal rakhna. Take care of yourself and your children on your birthday. “Happy Birthday once more!”

As the special plane carrying NDRF officers and two dogs, Honey and Rambo, departed Indian soil, the rescuers had their own questions. For instance, Neeraj questioned if they would be able to function efficiently in a foreign nation due to the language barrier, while Amarpal Singh practised driving on the right side of the road in his thoughts. The NDRF had obtained 11 cars from India so that they would not have to rely on the Turkish authorities who were handling the disaster. Once they landed, a third officer observed the mountains surrounding the airport, estimated that the temperature was below zero, and hoped that the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) winter coats would keep them warm.

“Upon landing in Turkey, we immediately donned our India uniforms and commenced work. I will never forget the scene on our approach to Gaziantep, one of the worst-affected cities, which I will never forget. It resembled a lockdown from the year 2020, with only emergency vehicles on the road. The main distinction was that the majority of structures had been levelled,” remarked Tomar.

Three NDRF teams – India 10, India 11, and India 12 – traversed various disaster-stricken areas, and news of their rescue activities began to reach India and their families. A six-year-old girl and an eight-year-old girl were miraculously rescued by the teams about eighty-four hours after the initial earthquake struck the country.

“I will never forget the face of the elderly guy who pleaded with us for days to locate his brother who was locked within. An international team had already inspected the location and left. The man remained stationary in front of a six-story structure. We discovered the body of his sibling beneath a bed among the rubble. We informed him that his sibling had passed away. He was unable to even cry. “His tears had dried up,” Tomar stated.

Neeraj stated that they discovered the body of a man in his forties holding his deceased son in Gaziantep. “He had fiercely gripped his son’s body to save him.”

Amarpal Singh stated that another team discovered the bodies of a family of five who had perished when their home fell. “Wherever we went, the scene was identical. Unfortunate family hope for a miracle and waiting outside the ruins.”

Most NDRF personnel who spoke with HT said they now have a story to tell about a time when they proudly represented India — and it’s not just a story about a rescue mission they participated in while their families back home prayed for their safety; it’s also a story about people losing their loved ones, homes, and lives.

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