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‘I saw death’: Rescuers in rebel-held Syria plead for help after quake

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Picture: Khalil Ashawi/REUTERS – A rescuer carries a child, following an earthquake, in rebel-held town of Jandaris, Syria February 6, 2023.

By Sarah Dadouch

BEIRUT – For more than a decade, residents of an opposition-held enclave in northwestern Syria have endured bombardment, brutal fighting and a seemingly endless humanitarian crisis, haunted by the fear that no one cares. On Monday, after an earthquake destroyed their homes and flattened their neighbourhoods, the sting of abandonment was almost too much to bear.

“It has been 12 years of us asking for help, calling on people who have discarded us as we died in front of their eyes,” said Hussam Zleito, 47, a member of the Syrian Civil Defence, an aid group that operates in areas outside government control.

“And during this huge unfortunate humanitarian crisis, the world has turned its back on us, as if there aren’t human beings in this area, as if there are no souls [here].”

Picture: Haj Kadour / AFP – Members of the Syrian civil defence, known as the White Helmets, transport a casualty from the rubble of buildings in the village of Azmarin in Syria’s rebel-held northwestern Idlib province at the border with Turkey following an earthquake, on February 7, 2023.

The 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck early Monday has wreaked havoc across southern Turkey and northern Syria. The two governments launched relief efforts and dispatched search and rescue teams; foreign countries were quick to pledge help, establishing humanitarian aid bridges, adding flights to affected areas, and sending experts and rescuers.

But people in Syria’s rebel-held, war-shattered Idlib province and its surroundings have largely been left to dig out on their own. More than 1,100 have been killed there, and more than 2,000 are injured, according to Syrian Civil Defence. Much of the area is run by a local government that is not recognized by any country, born out of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a militant group that once considered itself an al-Qaeda affiliate.

Of the 4.5 million people living in Idlib, nearly 2.9 million were displaced from elsewhere in Syria – and many have been displaced several times. Nearly 90 percent of residents require assistance and aid, according to the United Nations.

International charities provide assistance, as do local organizations such as Syrian Civil Defence, often referred to as the “White Helmets,” after their headgear.

But humanitarian efforts have been halting and inadequate. The situation in Idlib was already desperate. Few places in the world were as unprepared for a natural disaster.

When the quake struck at 3.30am, electricity and internet went out, leaving people to scramble in the darkness to find their loved ones and escape. Zleito sent a message to his family telling them he was alive, but he had no time to wait for a reply, or to check on them – he had to get to work.

He spent 35 hours digging through rocks, dirt and concrete in the cold and rain, he said, fixated on one task: locating the voices coming from the rubble.

“I know we went through a war,” Zleito said, “but I fell apart from the pain and fear and panic that I witnessed.”

“There were so many thoughts that circulated in my mind, negative and cynical thoughts,” he continued, remembering how he tried to keep his fears for his family at bay. About 18 or 19 hours in, he could take it no longer, and he ran to find a place with working internet.

His phone lit up with a flood of messages. “My kids were telling me, ‘We’re okay, Papa. Just tell us you’re okay.’ My wife was saying, ‘Just send us a message to tell us you’re okay.'” He reassured his family and went back to work. He spent a painstaking five hours trying to extract one woman, providing her with oxygen until she could be pulled from the ruins of her home. Most were not so lucky.

“We pulled out whole families, five or six or seven members, mostly kids, who were dead under the rubble, or had asphyxiated from everything on top of them,” he said.

In one video widely shared on social media, a rescue team working on a building in the village of Jinderis in rebel-held Syria pulled a newborn baby, naked and covered with dust and bruises, from the debris.

A doctor treating the baby, Hani Maarouf, later told the Associated Press that she must have been born under the rubble. Those rescuing the child had cut her umbilical cord. Her mother was dead, as were her father and four siblings.

Khadija Khatib, a 23-year-old volunteer with the group, said what she saw was “frighteningly tragic”.

“I saw death,” she said, a small, shocked laugh escaping her. “People are dying. People are in the streets, waiting for their families, waiting for their children. They just want any news about them. They just want to know they’re breathing.”

“Enormous” numbers of people were wandering the streets, she said, wounded or trying to reunite with loved ones. The storm made it worse, as pounding rain drowned out the voices of those calling for help.

“We need help. We need backup. The situation is really indescribable. I mean, yesterday while I’m watching a girl whose brother got out, and she’s 14 or 15 years old stuck under the rubble, and she just wants to get out.” Khatib started crying softly. “She just wants to get out, to live.”

Khatib and her team spoke to the girl for more than four hours, using largely ineffectual wooden struts to prop up the collapsed debris. But Khatib was soon called to another location. She doesn’t know if the girl made it out alive.

Eventually, she said, they got proper struts from an international aid group, but not before midnight. “Despite working for 24 hours, we were still ready to keep going. But the tools failed us,” Khatib said.

“There are some people who are alive, and we could not pull them out,” she continued, her voice straining with emotion.

For now at least, no help is imminent. Damaged roads have forced the United Nations to halt aid deliveries from Turkey into northwestern Syria. “We don’t have a clear picture of when it will resume,” Madevi Sun-Suon, a spokeswoman for the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told Reuters on Tuesday.

As the hours dragged on, family members were taking matters into their own hands. Khatib described one man who rescued his wife and injured son, then returned for the rest of his children. Four floors caved in on top of him. But remarkably, when the team yelled out to him, he answered.

The rescuers tried, for hours, to reach him. His mother waited outside, crying in the rain. “We tried in every way, with heavy machinery and light machinery and our hands, and we were rushing,” she said.

“We kept calling and calling. Then we couldn’t hear his voice again.”

Sarah Dadouch is a Beirut-based Middle East correspondent for The Washington Post. She was previously a Reuters correspondent in Beirut, Riyadh and Istanbul.

This article was first published in The Washington Post