Syria earthquake devastates the once resilient Salqin

Residents dug to free people with their bare hands. The city was relatively prosperous despite the civil war, until another disaster hit

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Aid worker Othman Abdulqader was fast asleep at his cousin's apartment in a four-storey building in Salqin in northern Syria when his bed shook and the floor started swaying.

“We ran out in our pyjamas. The electricity went out and heavy rain made the situation worse,” Mr Abdulqader said by phone from Salqin, in the north-western Idlib governorate.

With his cousin, Mr Abdulqader rushed to help a people nearby buried under rubble but without heavy equipment their efforts were in vain.

Idlib remains under the control of militant groups opposed to President Bashar Al Assad, along with parts of the north of the country where pro-Turkish militias operate.

“Most buildings around us collapsed,” Mr Abdulqader said.

Monday's earthquake was the most devastating in Syria in living memory, hitting areas under a Turkish sphere of influence in the north, as well other parts of the area under regime control.

I counted 97 dead. The bodies looked horrific
Othman Abdulqader, earthquake survivor

Moatez Khaled was stuck in his apartment when the tremors struck.

“My neighbour and I tried to break our way out of the building,” he told The National.

“We were finally able to open a door that took us into the stairwell. The neighbours next door broke through the wall to our side and, with the help of others who were already outside, we made our way out.”

The country remains in civil war, nearing its 13th year, a conflict that began after the regime in 2011 used deadly force to crush a peaceful revolt against five decades of Assad family rule.

The epicentre of the earthquake was 120km to the north, in the Turkish province of Gaziantep. The area, along with nearby Idlib, is historically a hinterland for the great Silk Road city of Aleppo.

The building Mr Abdulqader and his cousin were at was damaged but remained standing.

It was built four decades ago, unlike most of Salqin, which has undergone extensive expansion since it fell out of Mr Al Assad's control nine years ago.

Salqin was an agricultural town of 30,000 when the civil war broke out. Rebels supported by Turkey and Arab countries captured the town in 2014 and displaced people from Idlib and elsewhere started pouring in.

The town was eventually captured by Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, a militant group set up by a Syrian offshoot of Al Qaeda.

Those militants control most of Idlib and maintain open channels with Turkey. Hayat Tahrir Al Sham set up an administration in Idlib but, like other militias in Syria, the group rules its territory by force.

“Humanitarian assistance to the area is limited because most donors have suspended anything beyond life-saving aid since HTS took control of the area,” says Dareen Khalifa, a senior analyst for Syria at Crisis Group.

During the war, Ms Khalifa says, “the Russians and the Syrian regime were systematically targeting hospitals and healthcare facilities. They really obliterated infrastructure in the area. The remaining facilities are very primitive … they are not equipped to handle this crisis.”

Relief operations are expected to be further hampered by the fact that there is only one open border crossing, Bab Al Hawa, between HTS-controlled areas and the outside world. The UN Security Council recently renewed permission for relief agencies to make use of the crossing for another six months, but doing so relies on constant co-ordination with the Turkish government.

This could become complicated by the Turkish government dealing with the fallout from the earthquake within its own borders.

The UN offices responsible for dealing with north-west Syria, moreover, are headquartered in the heavily affected city of Gaziantep.

In Salqin and other parts of northern Syria, electricity and gas come from Turkey and some basic services are better than they were under government control, residents say.

Syrian expats and international organisations helped overhaul the health system, together with private clinics that multiplied in the last decade. Internet and communication services expanded after breaking free from state-awarded monopolies.

Money exchangers and companies offering financial services set up shop, especially after Aleppo — which had been partly held by rebels — was retaken by the regime in 2015.

Mr Abdulqader came to Salqin several days ago to buy goods for his children at a newly-built shopping centre, now reduced to a pile of rubble, and to buy fruit and vegetables from a wholesale market.

Immediately after surviving the earthquake he rushed with his cousin to a new housing estate nearby to see if they could help.

“Our presence was useless, heavy equipment was needed,” he said. Contractors and quarry owners near Salqin started sending bulldozers to devastated neighbourhoods, he said.

The two men also went to Al Amal, one of the three main hospitals in the city.

“I counted 97 dead. The bodies looked horrific,” Mr Abdulqader said.

He took photos of some of the dead and injured. One man's leg was mangled and mostly detached from his body. Three children lay on one bed. One of them appeared dead. A woman's body arrived with a smashed head, her brain visible.

“Aftershocks were still occurring late on Monday afternoon and almost has everyone stayed outdoors, on the streets, in cars or in the fields,” Mr Abdulqader said.

“Thousands may have perished in Salqin,” he said. “We will know after the bulldozers finish working.”

Updated: February 07, 2023, 4:37 AM