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15 February 2023

The anger and hope the earthquake left behind

As the death toll in Syria and Turkey passes 36,000, survivors question whether some deaths could have been prevented.

By Lyse Doucet

There is a feeling that seems to stir within everyone when witnessing the aftermath of an earthquake. Perhaps it has something to do with the merciless erasure, the utter annihilation in minutes. We seem to hold fast to faith in our human strength and spirit. We celebrate “miracles”.

“A miracle! ” we heard people cry again and again in the wake of the seismic shock in Turkey and Syria on 6 February, which has now been deemed “the disaster of the century”. Day after day, amid scenes of devastation, astonishment and elation fizzed across social media as survivors were pulled from jagged heaps of rubble, dusty and dishevelled, but alive.

“Is the world there?” asked the 70-year-old Menekse Tabak, as she was gently lifted from beneath layers of concrete in Kahramanmaras, a city in southern Turkey. Applause and cries of Allahu Akbar (God is greatest), rippled through the onlooking crowds. On 12 February, a 13-year-old girl emerged alive in Gaziantep, as rescuers shouted with glee: “You are a miracle!” On that day, the Turkish government said 67 more people had been rescued in the past 24 hours – the impressive work of the rescue teams from Turkey and many other countries, as well as of the desperate families scraping the earth with their bare hands.

On 13 February, at around 2am – a week on from when the earthquake first struck – cries from rescuers rang out: “Silence!” We all stood, frozen on the spot, others huddled around campfires, barely breathing. Emergency teams scrambled over the ruins, under bright lights, armed with thermal cameras. “Can you hear my voice?” one hard-hatted rescuer shouted into a tangle of shattered plaster, plastic and twisted steel. “Knock two times if you do!” Only silence followed.

Survivors defy the odds; they endure days without water to drink, much air to breathe and in bitingly cold temperatures. Rescuers push themselves beyond their limits, striving without sleep against a ticking clock. In the days that followed the earthquake, with so many saved, they let themselves dream that all was not lost – they dared to believe in the power of miracles.

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We saw it on the sixth day in Kahramanmaras, which lies between the epicentre of the first 7.8 magnitude tremor, and an aftershock hours later so powerful that it was called a second earthquake. What was once an ordinary neighbourhood of high-rise residential blocks and low-slung shops is now a vast cemetery. Countless bodies are entombed inside the wreckage. An overpowering stench of death confirmed the local residents’ worst fears. Yet those who had escaped the earthquake continued to sit quietly, waiting on garden chairs around every mound of rubble, staring from their front row seats and willing their loved ones to rise.

Someone then began to shout that her loved ones would have – should have – survived. They should have been that miracle. “My sister is still inside that rubble. Her phone was ringing,” the woman declared, clutching her own bright red mobile phone to her heart. “If this rescue effort had been good from the start, I don’t know how many people would still be alive.” The president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, described the earthquake as “destiny’s plan” – a catastrophe no one could prepare for. I asked her if she agreed. She responded by railing against the politicians that she said never showed up to help – except one.

When Martin Griffiths, the United Nations’ under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, arrived in this neighbourhood, he was visibly unsettled. He said it was the worst disaster he’d ever seen in his decades of work. I asked him what his greatest fear was now, following the earthquake. I expected him to list, as other aid officials have done, the risks of disease, hunger and people freezing to death in flimsy shelters.

“My greatest fear now is when we learn how many people really died. The speculation is frightening,” he said as he gazed across streets blanketed in broken buildings. “Just to think that under those mountains of rubble could be many poor forgotten people.” By 13 February, the death toll in Syria and Turkey was already a staggering 36,000.

“What they now need to do is make the difficult decision of when to call off the rescue effort,” Griffiths said. It’s that point in every disaster when the focus shifts to recovery, relief and eventually rebuilding. When I posted this comment on social media, the British disaster expert Lucy Easthope, tweeted: “The move from ‘rescue’ to only ‘recovery’ is a devastating stage of disaster. Rescuers often have to be pulled away from the rubble and torture themselves for ever that they could have done more.”

[See also: After the Turkey earthquake: The rage is greater than the pain]

The question that haunts this blighted landscape is whether some deaths could have been prevented. This cloud is heaviest not in Turkey, but across the border in north-west Syria. It was there that the news of a “miracle baby” emerged. A tiny newborn, swathed in dust, was pulled from the ruins. When she was rescued her umbilical cord had to be cut from her dead mother. Her father and all four of her siblings had perished. An earthquake orphan. In a photo of her which went viral on social media and captured headlines and hearts, she stares at the world with piercing black eyes as she lies in an incubator. Of course her name is Aya. In Arabic it means miracle.

Outside of Aya’s new bubble of safety is a land not of miracles, but misfortune. In north-west Syria – which is the last rebel-held enclave in a nation shattered by a dozen years of war – when people cried out for help after the earthquake, there was no one to listen. In the luckier places, there were the hands of the White Helmets, a volunteer force that has been pulling people from wreckages in Syria – often following airstrikes – for years. Previously, the only way to access this area was via a crossing from Turkey authorised by the UN Security Council. In the past, Russia and China have both vetoed other lifesaving routes from being used by the UN, claiming the paths would violate the Syrian government’s sovereignty. But Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad has finally agreed to open two new crossing points so that more aid can reach survivors – though it will be far too late for many. Griffiths admitted: “We have so far failed the people of north-west Syria.”

Sometimes, in the wake of overwhelming loss, political miracles happen too. We saw it after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, when warring parties in the stricken Indonesian area of Aceh put aside their enmities and negotiated a peace deal. This time there are but small glimmers. Assad says he’ll allow aid to cross government-controlled areas into opposition ones – a promise which has to be tested. But some rebel fighters, including those with past ties to Al-Qaeda, have said that they won’t accept such tainted help.

Across the border, Erdoğan – who has been in power for 20 years – will face elections in May. Can this strongman withstand this strong earthquake? Will builders, with strong political connections, be blamed instead for cutting corners in their work? Or will both be made to bear responsibility as survivors consumed by grief continue to ask why some greater power wasn’t there for them.

Lyse Doucet is the BBC’s chief international correspondent

Read more:

With Turkey in crisis, Erdoğan leans into chaos

Aubergines off the menu in Turkey as inflation bites

What is happening to the Turkish lira?

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This article appears in the 15 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why the right is losing everywhere