Syria earthquake: 'Every hour we’re losing more lives,' say rescuers

Residents seek shelter as search teams struggle to dig survivors out of rubble

Syria earthquake survivor tells his story

Syria earthquake survivor tells his story
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Living conditions in Syria's rebel-held north-west, already difficult, have been severely aggravated by the deadly earthquake that rocked Turkey and neighbouring Syria on Monday and has so far claimed more than 6,000 lives.

The 7.8-magnitude earthquake bulldozed vast parts of north-western Syria, destroyed hundreds of buildings and exacerbated the hardships of millions in the rebel holdout, already afflicted by Syria's 12-year civil war and its subsequent refugee crisis.

The death toll in the north-west — which is currently more than 900 — rises hourly as exhausted rescue workers struggle to free people from the rubble using rudimentary equipment and, in some cases, their own hands.

Rescue workers operating in freezing temperatures say they do not have the resources for such large-scale rescue efforts, while residents whose homes have been destroyed struggle to find accommodation.

“It depends on each person and what options they have in front of them,” said Ismail Abdullah, 36, a volunteer with the White Helmets civil defence organisation in Sarmada, near the Syrian border with Turkey.

“Some colleagues are going to refugee camps where they have relatives. Some people are going to makeshift shelters and some people are holed up in masjids.”

Relatives, friends, neighbours and mosques across north-western Syria have opened their doors to those displaced. Makeshift camps have cropped up overnight to house hundreds of people.

Mr Abdullah’s home was severely damaged by Monday's quake, but he said he had no choice but to return to it for now.

It had already been badly damaged in a previous bombardment by Syrian government forces and their Russian allies — a still-common occurrence as the country’s civil war, now in its 12th year, continues in parts of the country, including the north-west.

“It was split in some areas after the earthquake. We’re scared aftershocks will bring the whole building down,” he said.

Still in shock, he struggled with his words as he described a neighbouring residential building which was reduced to rubble, killing more than 17 people inside. His words echoed feelings of frustration and futility from other rescue workers as they sought to dig victims from the rubble with insufficient or nonexistent equipment.

“We have huge difficulties. We don't have enough bulldozers, we don’t have enough lorries or cranes,” Mr Abdullah told The National. “Instead of spending 24 hours breaking through a roof to find people, we should just be able to remove the roof with a crane.”

“We're doing what we can. We are not superheroes. Every hour we’re losing more lives,” he added. “I can only hold my tears back for so long.”

The humanitarian situation in north-west Syria, the last remaining rebel holdout, was dire even before the quake. The overcrowded enclave accommodates nearly two million internally displaced Syrians in camps and informal sites across the region.

Over four million residents in the northwest already faced unbearable living conditions, with many homes already damaged or destroyed due to bombardment, cross-border aid shortages, few job opportunities and little access to a strained health system mostly run by NGOs.

Cut off from government areas, Syria’s northwest is heavily dependent on aid from neighboring Turkey. But Turkey, the epicenter of the earthquake, is itself overwhelmed and struggling to mount an emergency response as the search for survivors continues.

“The situation is bleak and catastrophic on a humanitarian level,” said Oubadah Alwan, a media coordinator for the White Helmets.

“Before the earthquake we already suffered from a lack of resources, medical equipment, diesel fuel to power equipment … all of these factors are hindering response efforts on the ground now.”

“We were already spread thin. This is beyond the capacity of our organisation.”

Mr Alwan spoke as reports poured in that the Bab al Hawa border crossing — usually the sole humanitarian crossing point between Turkey and north-western Syria — was closed due to severe road damage, further limiting the flow of supplies into the rebel-held region.

Numerous local humanitarian organisations told The National the need for resources was critical.

“People in Jindiris are digging for survivors in the rubble with their own hands,” Mr Abdullah added.

Death and displacement

Abdel Mueen, in his 50s, is hosting four families who have fled from neighbouring Jindiris, which he said was “now 80 per cent rubble”. He added: “They've lost everything.”

Among the families is 13-year-old Elisar Al Masri.

“It was the first time I ever saw someone die in front of me,” she told The National after seeing her 10-year-old nephew, Malek, under a pile of rubble when their family home's balcony fell on top of him during the first overnight earthquake.

She was carrying Malek's younger brother, who survived.

“I felt like it was judgment day when it happened. The building began to shake and the stairs began to crumble as we were trying to run to escape.”

“Now, I am at my uncle's house. He's the only one we have left.”

Her aunt and four children were also killed in the earthquake. They lived in a four-storey building in Afrin, one of the worst-hit areas of Syria.

“When we were running barefoot, we kept seeing buildings fall and people crying, with bodies and blood everywhere. Now we are literally homeless.

“We are living the trauma every second. It's impossible to forget.”

This is not the first time the family has been displaced. They are originally from Hama but like many others in the north-west, they had to flee their home several times due to Syria's war.

Makeshift camps

In Jindiris, the town’s local council created the Iwaa' camp overnight to shelter those displaced in the earthquake.

Ahlam, an employee of the World Vision humanitarian aid agency in the north-west, described a situation of chaos as those displaced in the quake clamoured for tents and blankets, both limited in number, in the bone-chilling cold.

"They're only giving one blanket per person," Ahlam said. "It's chaos. And people are still emerging from the rubble. Not to mention the people who are dying because search and rescue teams just don't have the resources and equipment needed to save people who are still trapped."

"May god help us. We emerged from war only to fall straight into an earthquake."

Updated: February 07, 2023, 5:26 PM