Turkey-Syria earthquake: Hope races against despair in 'abandoned' Idlib

Turkey-Syria earthquake: Hope races against despair in 'abandoned' Idlib
Hadia Al Mansour, on the ground in Idlib, speaks to survivors and bears witness to the massive destruction that has befallen the opposition-held region in the face of a lack of aid and assistance, freezing conditions, and extremely limited resources.
7 min read
11 February, 2023

Four days after the devastating earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria on Monday, hundreds of victims are still trapped under the rubble of their homes in northwest Syria with rescue teams unable to cope with the sheer number of collapsed buildings.

"I felt completely helpless when a woman died shortly before we rescued her […]. We couldn't do any more. I wish we could save everyone," said Fatima Abdo, a Syrian Civil Defence volunteer. She spoke of the sadness at retrieving the corpses of those who had been trapped under the ruins in Harem town (west of Idlib) after the quake.

Fatima also talked about the overwhelming joy and tears and cheering that accompanied every successful rescue, which gave everyone hope and galvanised the team, like when they rescued a child from under his collapsed home in Jindires, north Aleppo, on Wednesday - two days after the quake.

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In Jindires too, a baby girl was pulled out alive, miraculously born under the rubble, still connected by the umbilical cord to her dead mother. The baby's entire family had been killed.

Northwest Syria had been already suffering from years of war when the earthquake hit and transformed entire neighbourhoods across a huge area into a mass burial ground.

Huda Abdo (39), her husband and their four children were asleep when the ground started shaking violently beneath them.

Men survey the rubble and debris of a collapsed building
Men survey the wreckage of a collapsed building in Sarmada city, Idlib province [Hadia Al Mansour]
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"Death came from all sides", she said. "It was like the Day of Resurrection, a terrifying nightmare... it was so dark, with the sound of the building shuddering violently, and the panicked cries of neighbours were all I could sense."

"We lived on the fifth floor of the building, which was shaking violently. I left with my family wearing no shoes, trying to get out alive before the building collapsed."

Huda described the overwhelming relief her and her family felt the moment they had "escaped the clutches of death" and were stood across the street with others gathering there, watching as their apartment building cracked and looked on the verge of coming down, "despite the pouring rain and freezing weather."

Huda's family have sought temporary refuge with some relatives in a camp close to Harem but they don't yet know where they will be able to settle,

Sulafa Bakour (32)’s voice cracks as she recounts her tragic experience. Pulled out alive from the rubble of her destroyed home in Sarmada city, with multiple fractures, the rest of her family lost their lives; their bodies have not been yet recovered.

"I still can't comprehend what happened. We were sleeping peacefully before I woke to total blackness, dust, rubble, and rocks that choked me. I thought it was the end and death was coming."

Sulafa lost consciousness, only to wake in a hospital bed unable to move. She still doesn't know any news as to the fate of her husband, five sons and the families of her brothers who lived in the same building.

Muhab, only 11, is the sole survivor in his family. "I have no one left – they were all killed at once".

Tears stream down his young face, and his voice chokes up with grief, as he lies in the hospital saying he wishes he'd died with his family and hadn't escaped to live alone for the rest of his life. His situation has touched the hearts of the medical team tending to him who cried with him.

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The experience of Sulafa, Huda and Muhab mirrors those of thousands of other families across northwest Syria. Entire neighbourhoods have been razed, families have been left homeless, and children remain under the rubble. Some have died, and some are still fighting for their lives waiting to be found and rescued. Meanwhile, their relatives scream helplessly overhead, unable to do anything except make appeals to the world in front of cameras and on social media - to stand with them and support them.

Munir al-Mustafa, Deputy Director of the Syrian Civil Defense, described the situation as catastrophic. He said hundreds of families are still under the rubble of destroyed homes across Idlib province, especially in the cities of Salqin, Harem, and Azmarin, and Besnaya village, which was severely damaged, as was the city of Jindires in northern Aleppo province.

He said their teams had counted around 1,900 deaths and more than 2,950 injured in northwest Syria, with the number expected to rise "significantly" in the coming hours.

He fears huge numbers of deaths coming to light during the coming period as it has been over eighty hours since the earthquake, with dozens, perhaps hundreds, still trapped under the debris of their homes.

Mustafa said Syrian Civil Defence volunteer teams have been working to full capacity since the earthquake struck, putting out calls for humanitarian assistance to speed up the search and rescue operations. However, these appeals have not been answered so far, except for a technical team from Egypt which had entered Jindires, made up of search and rescue and medical personnel.

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Mustafa added that aid via the Bab Al Hawa border crossing with Turkey had been entering periodically before the earthquake, but was suspended in the initial hours following the disaster, resuming on 9 February. However with regards to the UN aid which was suspended when the earthquake hit, no international aid had entered at all in terms of assistance to speed up the response operations to the earthquake, he said.

Mustafat warned the international community and UN against further delay in sending humanitarian intervention teams as every hour that passes means the loss of hundreds of lives.

Duraid al-Rahmoun, head of primary care at the Idlib Health Directorate, said they are working to provide emergency services but many cases have been delayed for two or three days because of overcrowding in all the hospitals, and limited intensive care spaces and incubators.

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The directorate is trying to procure supplies in line with demand through donations from internal donors, individuals, volunteer teams and local organisations. He said there was no reserve or emergency response stock due to a longstanding lack of support.

On the types of injuries seen, he said they were a lot of broken bones and severe bruising, internal and cerebral haemorrhages, neurological injuries, and amputations. He said most of the injuries are "crush" injuries [physical trauma from prolonged compression] which are very serious and require long-term follow-up.

In many cases these could lead to multiple organ damage, which is often fatal if tailored procedures aren't followed, which are extremely costly, and need prolonged periods in intensive care, while the number of ICU beds is limited. Especially serious is if oxygen has been cut off for a period, as these cases may enter into what is called "cerebral hypoxia", brain trauma, and nerve damage.

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The rescue efforts in northwest Syria have been hindered by extensive road damage, fuel shortages and freezing conditions. Syria's Emergency Response Team, a non-governmental organisation that operates in the opposition-held region, said snowstorms had blocked roads inside makeshift camps housing tens of thousands of IDPs.

The UN says the number in need of humanitarian support is greater than at any time since the start of the war began - 70 percent of the population of northwest Syria needed assistance even before the earthquake, with an estimated 4 million depending on cross-border aid.

Adelheid Marschang, WHO Senior Emergency Officer, said Syria needed massive humanitarian aid after the quake, describing it as "a crisis on top of multiple crises."

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Maram Al-Hamdan, activist from Idlib city, criticized the "double standards" of most Arab countries, and said sending aid to Syria was as urgent as sending it to Turkey, a powerful country with plentiful resources, unlike northwest Syria, where the state of the population was desperate before the earthquake.

She said all the local humanitarian teams were working as hard as they could to retrieve survivors from under the wreckage amidst huge difficulties. She pointed out that more than 4.8 million people are living in northwest Syria right now in the cold and in terror, and they need international support and the solidarity of humanitarian organisations as quickly as possible.

The catastrophe of the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck the region comes at a time when the humanitarian situation in northwest Syria is worsening, as thousands of families are left homeless, struggling to survive in low winter temperatures, snow and rain storms.

Hadia Al Mansour is a freelance journalist from Syria who has written for Asharq Al-AwsatAl-MonitorSyriaUntold and Rising for Freedom Magazine.

Article translated from Arabic by Rose Chacko