'It was like Judgement Day': Syrians in Turkey recount earthquake horror

'It was like Judgement Day': Syrians in Turkey recount earthquake horror
Syrians living in Turkey recount their horror during Monday's devastating earthquake, and their shock and grief upon learning of the deaths of family members in its aftermath.
4 min read
Turkey - Istanbul
08 February, 2023
Relatives mourn victims in Gaziantep two days after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the region [Zein Al Rifai/AFP via Getty]

Thousands of Syrian families have suffered fresh tragedy since catastrophic earthquakes struck southern Turkey on Monday.

As mountains of rubble from the disaster continue to be cleared and rescue operations persist, the death toll from the quakes, one of which measured 7.8 on the Richter scale, keeps rising. The combined death toll in Turkey and Syria has climbed to over 11,200.

Syrian journalist Mohammad Haj Bakri lost multiple family members in the earthquake. He spoke to The New Arab's Arabic-language sister edition of his heart-wrenching experience while making his way from Istanbul to the southern city of Antakya.

"The pain is indescribable - my brother and his three children died, so did my sister and her son, under the rubble," he told Al-Araby Al-Jadeed.

"The building my aunt lived in collapsed too, killing her and 13 other Syrians who were staying there, just two days after they were giving condolences for the death of her husband," Bakri continued, his voice shaking as though he was struggling to breathe.

"I thank God my parents weren't in the building, and they're fine, I've been told – I'm going to see."

Bakri is one of thousands of Syrians in Turkey who have been plunged into a state of mourning after being told relatives died in the devastating quake.

Among the dead are activists who had risen to prominence through their defence of the Syrian revolution and had appeared in multiple TV interviews fighting for the cause, like judge Mahmoud Khalil, who died alongside members of his family under the rubble, and Lebanese novelist and activist Dalal Zeineddine.

Omar Jamil, a Syrian from Osmaniye province in southern Turkey, told the story of one Syrian victim: "Mustafa Ahmad Ghazal from Sarmin, Idlib, tried to get out alive with his family. He managed to get his wife and daughters out, carrying his youngest daughter Watan, who is only two, who he utterly adored… but the apartment building collapsed just as he reached the front door, killing him, while his daughter Watan survived - we snatched her out still alive."

Jamil continued: "It was like the Day of Judgement. We woke up to the building shaking. Everyone fled onto the street, as the building started cracking and caving in. I saw things I'll never forget. We were screaming and crying for help, trying to pull people out who we could see, but the horror of what was happening, the force of the earthquake, were too much […], and the shock sent us crazy. We were screaming and running in all directions without knowing where we were going…but we did manage to save many children and get them away from death."

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Mohammad Ibrahim Shahoud, from Islahiye, a town in Gaziantep province that used to house a large Syrian refugee camp, said he knew ten buildings in a predominantly Syrian neighbourhood had been destroyed. All the members of his nephew Emad's family had been killed, he said, adding that the state of the victims was "extremely painful" to see, as "some of the bodies had been crushed."

"I will carry out the will of my older brother and bring the dead for burial in Syria," he added.

Syrian Radwan Abdul Razzaq said that his son's four children also died, adding: "My son Mohammad doesn't know yet, as he is bedridden with his one surviving son in hospital, and we have tried to keep him calm by telling him everyone is OK."

Other Syrians told Al-Araby Al-Jadeed they "saw death and survived by a miracle." Mohammad Hussein, from Nizip, Gaziantep spoke of how he and his family awoke to the sound of crashing furniture, and the walls shaking. He says he got them up, yelling at them to hurry, and carried his two children out of the building, "which was cracking and straining, but didn't fall."

"We haven't dared go back inside the building since then, especially with the council warning people not to enter houses showing cracks," he said, adding that hundreds of Syrians spent the night on a farm nearby, or in cars or public parks.

Mr Jamaal, from Antakya, described his survival as "miraculous", after the hotel he was staying in on the Al Honda Roundabout (on the main road into Antakya) was destroyed.

"It felt like the Day of Judgement. Everything was shaking and falling around me until only a few walls were left standing, and I began screaming, and some of the other lodgers heard me and dragged me out before the building collapsed completely."

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Ghazwan Qurunful, head of the Free Syrian Lawyers Association in Turkey, related how he was woken by the shaking: "We live on the 13th floor and the strength of the tremors was terrifying. I ran underneath the door frame, and started yelling and shouting 'God is the greatest' to wake up my wife and children. I couldn't physically go and wake them because I suddenly got dizzy, then we all sat under the table until the shaking stopped, and then rushed to get out of the building."

Qurunful said over two million Syrians live in the 10 Turkish provinces hit by the earthquakes.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here.

Translated by Rose Chacko