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22 February 2023

Letter from Syria: “We called for urgent help. No one responded”

After more than a decade of devastation inflicted by civil war, Syrians face a new struggle for survival.

By Quentin Sommerville

They weren’t digging for bodies. Help was needed for that, and little had come, so a Syrian man and two boys in the Idlib town of Harem, in north-west Syria, were using a red car jack to lift concrete and salvage sacks of animal feed that had been swallowed by the earthquake. The man placed a brown blanket over the rubble that was once a parade of homes and shops and slit open the trapped sacks, guiding the flow with dust covered hands. A few pellets fell into the dirt; he picked them up, cleaned them and added them to the pile on the blanket.

In opposition-controlled Syria, people live a hand-to-mouth existence. After 12 years of conflict everyone had been displaced by war more than once. Then the earthquake struck.

In this one town, a thousand people died. On the fifth day after the 6 February earthquake, across the border in Turkey, ­people were still being pulled bewildered and suffering – but alive – from the rubble, having spent freezing cold nights under the concrete. Heavy machinery was operated at all hours there, roaring and chewing at rubble under floodlights. A mighty rescue effort, both Turkish and international, clogged the streets, and the dust-filled air wailed with ambulance sirens hour after hour.

But in Harem it was left to men and boys alone, labouring under a cold winter sun with their bare hands, to recover what they could. Fadel Gahdab, 27, stood among them in raw despair. His aunt’s house had been lost; she was among the few pulled out alive, along with his niece, but his uncle and two nephews died.

“People are sleeping in the streets, in mosques too,” he said. “They’re sleeping under olive trees. There are still bodies under the rubble. We need to pull them out and bury them. There’s nothing. No vehicles, no equipment, crossings are shut, no aid is coming in. All the hospitals are overloaded. There’s no medical equipment. They can’t treat any more patients,” he said.

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As the earthquake tore apart the nearby town of Bsania, Jum’ah Ali Ismai’l, 43, clung with his wife to an olive tree praying in the darkness. They’d run out into the olive grove as their apartment collapsed into the hillside. They had saved their daughter who slept in their room, but were unable to get to their son and other daughter asleep next door. That initial earthquake lasted 75 seconds. Just more than a minute, in the dead of night, to wake up and collect all that is precious to you.

“It was a massacre, but no one spared an effort. Everyone pitched in: the White Helmets, the brothers here, tractors and bulldozers started digging. More than 60, maybe 100 homes have been flattened here. I managed to find my ­daughter. I pulled her out. She was dead,” he said, breaking down in tears.

The White Helmets – also known as the Syrian Civil Defence Force – receives funding from the UK government. Its members kept digging, but they lack earthquake training and rescue equipment. It would be another 24 hours before they found Jum’ah Ali Ismai’l’s 13-year-old son, Ala’. He too was dead, and was buried next to his 15-year-old sister, Wala’, just beyond the olive groves.

I had only eight hours inside this corner of opposition-held Syria. It is controlled by Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS), an Islamist group once linked to al-Qaeda. The fractured political landscape makes getting aid here difficult, even in the best of times.

And the best of times in north-west Syria are still a desperate struggle for survival. Almost two million people live in camps and unfinished buildings, surviving on aid which trickles across the border from Turkey. The Damascus regime, and its ally Russia, have long worked to stop that and push all support through government-held areas.

The earthquake was unable to dislodge thriving enmities in Syria. There were reports of volunteer convoys being turned back as they attempted to cross government lines, with Syrian army guards demanding half the aid they carried. One influential Islamist among HTS said that anyone who accepted help from government areas would be ­labelled “traitors and an enemy”.

[See also: Russia is to blame for holding up earthquake aid to Syria]

Faced with the choice of sending help to the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad or aiding an Islamist group, and with the nearest airport on the Turkish side of the border non-functional, most countries chose to do nothing. And all the while Syrian men, women and children died beneath the rubble.

The United Nations knew it had erred: “We have so far failed the people in north-west Syria,” said Martin Griffiths, the UN’s under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, on 12 ­February. Two days later a $400m UN appeal was launched to help the almost nine million people in Syria affected by the disaster. Griffiths said it was “a crisis of colossal proportions” and a “litmus test of global generosity”.

For opposition Syrians, the lack of help hardened the belief that the world had given up on their plight. As Emma Beals, a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute, explained: “After everything the people in north-west Syria have been through, it seemed like confirmation that nobody cared. It seemed like the weapon of aid denial, which many of them have suffered from elsewhere in Syria, including during brutal sieges, was being used against them again.

“As the week drew on and the discussion turned to the need for the regime’s permission to open more crossings, the same regime they had fled once again became the arbiter of whether they lived or died.”

It had taken days for help to reach southern Turkey, but it did arrive. I spent most of the aftermath in the city of Antakya, where the earthquake’s destruction was most concentrated. It’s a place well known to foreign journalists who used it as a base to cross into Syria during the height of the civil war. When phone connections were possible, we messaged each other asking if people and places we knew there had survived.

[See also: The anger and hope the earthquake left behind]

Antakya was destitute, with neither power nor running water, and entire residential blocks had been destroyed. The dead lay on the street covered in brightly coloured blankets as ambulances and rescue crews passed by; those sent to help only had time to retrieve the living. At night people camped out in supermarket car parks, huddling around shopping trolleys turned into braziers. At least, they reasoned, in open areas there was no chance of further collapse, as the aftershocks continued to bring down buildings, which teetered across the city. More would fall after another earthquake hit on 20 February, leaving survivors wondering if there was any refuge for them

“Armageddon” was how Erdal Baris Yildirim described the scene in Antakya, his voice hoarse from shouting commands over the din of nearby generators. The 40-year-old writer and director had travelled from Istanbul to join the rescue effort. He stood amid the rubble of an apartment building on the city’s Ataturk Street, as the generators powered floodlights that cast a ghostly monochromatic light across the scene.

“We are civilians,” he explained wearing a hard-hat and a torn, red quilted-jacket. “There are people from the Turkish Mountaineering Federation and other small mountaineering groups, and municipality workers. We have cavers, mountain climbers, miners, engineers. There are 60-70 people in this rescue group.”

As an excavator clawed at the rubble, Yildirim leapt across the ruins and climbed into the vehicle’s claw-bucket. The machine lifted him into a small gap between the building’s sandwiched floors. Camera probe in hand, he disappeared inside.

Yildirim had travelled to Antakya because he wanted to help, and his courage had drawn a large number of rescuers to his side. His team had already saved dozens of people. For hours they scrambled across and tore at the wrecked building, searching for a noise coming from inside. Just before daybreak they found the source, a scared but alive dog, his owner dead beside him.

“This was not a risky building. It was almost completely destroyed,” Yildirim said. By now he no longer expected to find people alive. His face was pale with a layer of cement and lack of sleep; he said he’d managed only a few hours the entire week. Beside him on the pavement, in a salvaged brown armchair, another worker dozed under a blanket.

As we drank tea and made an open fire, a man appeared wearing a thick winter coat and woollen hat. Nurullah Karaca, 40, had moved his family back to Antakya from Germany five months ago, and they had been living in a basement apartment across the street from where we sat. Yildirim had rescued two of his children, but his wife and daughter remained under the rubble.

“We cannot reach them. There are no sounds nor responses either,” Karaca said. “Brother Erdal tore himself apart to rescue my two children. He saved them from somewhere that no one would enter.” Karaca wasn’t yet ready to accept the truth that Yildirim whispered to me after he’d gone: his wife and daughter were already dead.

Despite his prediction, Yildirim’s team kept searching and finding survivors. A 50-year-old Turkish woman, Macide, was rescued after 132 hours buried under her apartment. Even later in Antakya a 17-year-old Syrian girl was rescued, the only survivor from her family.

Across the border in Syria there are fewer miracles. At the White Helmets’ headquarters in Idlib, a member called Ismail al Abdullah explained that they stopped looking for survivors 120 hours after the earthquake had hit.

Syria has been betrayed by the international community once again, al Abdullah said. “We tried our best to save our people, but we couldn’t because no one listened to us. From the first hour we called for urgent action, for urgent help – but no one responded. They just were saying that we are with you, nothing else. We said we need ­equipment, but still no one came.”

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This article appears in the 22 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Undoing of Nicola Sturgeon