Heroic rescuers scour ruined buildings for earthquake survivors
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More than 20,000 people have been killed by the earthquake that struck near the Turkish city of Gaziantep earlier this week. Most of the deaths are in Turkey, where more than 17,000 people have been confirmed as having died, while some 3,000 are thought to have been killed in Syria across the border. Many fear that the death toll in Syria may be far higher than that recorded due to a lack of resources enabling the wartorn region, currently held by rebels, to tally the true extent of the destruction.
A number of those affected in north west Syria live in isolated communities, far from suburban settlements where hospitals are nearby and people can hear you call for help.
Aid agencies, humanitarian groups and volunteers have rushed to the epicentre of the tragedy, struggling to cross into Syria to offer help because of sanctions slapped on the Bashar al-Assad regime.
As the chaos continues and tremors continue to shake the already unstable region, express.co.uk spoke to four different individuals, each with a unique perspective on the Syrian disaster, revealing a harrowing portrait of what one of them described as “another sad chapter to the Syrian tragedy”.
Amna Al Kaid, humanitarian worker, Idlib, Syria
Amna was woken from her sleep to find her bedroom shaking uncontrollably. Disoriented, she had no idea what was going on. Nothing like this had ever happened to her, not even during 12 years of a civil war.
Fearing the worst, she rushed to her daughters’ bedroom — a four-year-old and one-year-old — grabbed them, and ran out onto the street. The scene she found at once felt dreamlike, making her question whether she really was still asleep.
“Everyone was in the street, the roads were suddenly filled with people,” she said. “It was so rainy, so cold. We had no jackets, no blankets. How were we to know to bring them? We had just left our homes so quickly.”
North west Syria has endured a particularly harsh winter, with temperatures dropping well below freezing. The earthquake has left many, like Amna, now living in tents, either in the places their houses once stood or in local parks.
After the initial shock, Amna remembered her other family, also living in north west Syria. She tried to contact them. Nothing. She scoured social media for any sign. Then, a Facebook post: “I found a video from someone living in Harim, where my family lives. They posted about a building that fell down and all the people inside were dead.”
The building was where 14 members of her family were living, a block of 15 apartments. When the earthquake struck, they were all sleeping.
She said: “At five o’clock in the morning we went there in our car and found nothing, just nothing.
“Nothing was there. The streets were filled with people and it was so busy. In that area, there was no civilian defence that had started to help bring the people out from beneath the rubble, so we did it ourselves. We used our hands to remove the rubble.
“Many people were screaming. They had all been sleeping. We found most of them already dead. Every time we pulled someone out we had hope inside ourselves that one of them would still be alive. But all of them were dead.
“First we found my cousin, Abd, and his wife. They had married just two months ago.
“After that, we found his mum and his sister. Even they were dead. Then we found his other sister and four of her children. Finally, we found Bilal, my other cousin, his wife, and his three daughters. All dead.”
Amna’s world fell apart in a matter of hours. The dreamlike state returned, and everything became numb. “I couldn’t believe anything. Every time I closed my eyes I felt like it was a dream. I wanted to wake up,” she said.
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“But when you open your eyes you find thousands of people all trying to get their relatives out from the rubble, and they are all crying. Women and men, everyone is there.
“You ask yourself, ‘Why is this happening?’ You don’t realise what is happening, even when you drag them out of the rubble and try to wake them. All the time I tried to see if one of them was moving. But none of them was moving. None of them was moving.”
For now, Amna and her family have no plans. They are stuck in Idlib, unable to move anywhere else in Syria because of the Assad regime. Unable to travel to Turkey because of the road and border closures.
“I am afraid,” she said. “The first night after the earthquake I couldn’t sleep for a moment. I couldn’t sleep at all.
“Every moment I felt it would come, it would happen again. The feeling in my heart tells me that it will happen again.
“I feel that this will stay with me for a long time.”
“At the moment, something like over 400 buildings destroyed. Over 1,000 people are dead and over 2,000 injured, the last time I checked. And this is just from what we’ve been able to kind of report.”
People are wandering the streets aimlessly, with nowhere to go, trying to find shelter from the tremors — one of which measured 7.3 on the Richter scale — that have followed the main earthquake.
“But there’s no safe zone, there’s no place to safety,” he said. “Our volunteers are working on getting people out from under the rubble, but the question is — what next? There’s nowhere for these people to go.
“We’re dealing with this in the middle of a very harsh winter, so people are out in the streets in the freezing cold. They’re homeless.
“Medical facilities are at their capacity and they’re not able to deal with the kind of scale of the tragedy and then on top of that, there’s a severe lack of, or basically zero humanitarian aid that’s entering north-west Syria.
“So there’s a lack of tools. There’s a lack of medicine. There’s a lack of everything. Right now, people are in survival mode.”
There are currently around 3,000 White Helmet volunteers trying to help an area with a population of four million people. They are facing a situation far bigger than them.
Dr Mohammad Alhadj Ali, Chair of the Syrian Welsh Society, Cardiff, Wales
“When I found out that an earthquake had hit, I just wanted to hear my family’s voices. That was my first reaction — just to make sure that they were still alive.”
Dr Ali’s family were in fact still alive, and their house, in Aleppo, had largely escaped any damage. Still, they now spend nights in their cars at night for fear that death might come in their sleep.
While they are safe, tragedy has not escaped them. Dr Ali explained: “My sister, she is a pharmacist. Around 20 of her friends and colleagues, pharmacists and doctors, have passed away. It’s truly a disaster.”
Syria, especially north west Syria, had barely recovered after 12 years of war. Only now were things like hospitals, schools, and surgeries properly functioning. That return to normality has ended.
Dr Ali believes that any recovery from this natural disaster will take far longer than anything ever experienced in the region.
“You look at the last 12 years: people exposed to everything from heavy artillery to bombardments, air strikes to the difficult winter, difficult weather to floods, chemical weapons. They’ve been exposed to everything.
“And now the earthquake has come to add another sad chapter to the Syrian tragedy.”
The aid worker
Josie Naughton, CEO of Choose Love humanitarian charity, London, England
Josie had only just returned from some time off when she learned of the earthquake. She has since then been working 17-hour days, corresponding with those who work with her charity on the ground in Syria and Turkey. Offering as much help as she can thousands of miles away in London.
Those in the region tell her that despite the bombings, the shelling, the utter devastation the war had brought on Syria for over a decade, the earthquake is the “worst emergency that they’ve seen.”
She said: “The loss of life is just so beyond tragic, and all of these organisations, they’ve lost team members, team members have lost families. Those who were once organising the rescue missions and aid, the helpers, they themselves now need help.”
Josie fears that the moment is fast approaching when miracle stories of people being found will end.
She told of her partners on the ground in Syria asking whether her charity could help with money to secure a budget line for refrigerated lorries. “They’ve got nowhere to put all the dead bodies and they want to be able to allow their families to come and claimed their loved ones. It is so incredibly sad,” she said.
For the past year, Choose Love has been helping displaced people in the region find new homes.
The construction of buildings and apartments, funded by charities and organisations, have only recently been built to house those people forced to live in tents because of the war. Those buildings and apartments have now been destroyed.
Josie said: “People are just in the streets, they’ve got nowhere to go. This has quite literally happened at the worst moment.
“There were already shortages, aid agencies didn’t have the reserves of tents that they would have normally have. Now, the need for food, water, blankets, and shelter in both Turkey and Syria is just huge.”
Looking to the future, she believes the long-term effects will be catastrophic, a step backwards in any political breakthroughs, social and economic improvements, the raising of living standards so desperately needed.
“There will continue to be losses as people don’t recover from their injuries, as people aren’t able to get the prolonged treatment that they need,” she said.
“The mental health needs that there are going to be, people who’ve just been through one of the most traumatic, horrendous things.
“One of the people I was talking to said they were suffering from earthquake syndrome, and they just keep expecting the floor to open.
“The people who’ve lost seven members of their family, their entire families, the lasting effects of that…The level of a rebuild that is going to be needed is is that even going to be possible? Is that going to ever happen?
“North west Syria was already in a tough place, its infrastructure decimated. So to come back to from this, it will be 10 times as hard.”
For more information and to support the White Helmets, head here.
Click this link to find out more about how to help Tukrey and Syria recover from the earthquake.
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