Syria earthquake: Survivors take refuge in streets and fields in Assad-controlled areas
It was the middle of the night when Muhammad Ghazaal felt it.
“At around 4.30am we woke to the house literally dancing… you know that feeling. I wish to God nobody feels it again,” the 34-year-old told Middle East Eye.
“The house was going from left to right. It was surreal, we couldn’t even stand up and we were asleep.”
'The first day, it was cold, raining, no petrol, no blankets. We spent it in the street, in the dirt'
- Muhammad Ghazaal, Aleppo resident
In the ancient city of Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city and former industrial hub, Monday's earthquake brought yet more destruction to somewhere all but obliterated by war between 2012 and 2016.
The death toll has passed 21,000, with at least 23 million people affected.
Buildings have been flattened across Turkey’s south and Syria’s northwest in apocalyptic scenes, as relief efforts intensify.
In Syria, still reeling from its brutal decade-long conflict, the worst-hit areas are in Aleppo, Latakia and opposition-held Idlib. The scale of the disaster is staggering.
As their home collapsed around them, Ghazaal told MEE that shock took over him and his family. “We did the Shahada [declaration of Islamic faith]. I thought we were dead, my daughter and wife were with me, I grabbed them. In seconds we were under the rubble.”
The family managed to make it out of the rubble.
“We were helped to escape, I thought it was the end. It was early. People were in the streets as they were, barefoot, women without their hijabs, men in pyjamas, some almost naked,” Ghazaal said.
“People were screaming, weeping, it was a tragedy. The first day, it was cold, raining, no petrol, no blankets. We spent it in the street, in the dirt.”
After their miraculous escape, the family found shelter in Al-Hamdaniya stadium in Aleppo, which was transformed into a makeshift shelter. They cannot return to their home.
'Sleeping in gardens'
Nadim Issa is a Syrian basketball player who has helped set up a shelter in a basketball court in Aleppo, where donations were coming in.
But his volunteers lack the big international support so badly needed. Food, clothes, nappies and baby formula were being sent in from other parts of Syria.
“We need help, it’s a catastrophe, a humanitarian disaster. We need to remove the blockade on Syria, and receive aid from all countries. On the ground it’s chaos,” Issa told MEE.
“People are sleeping on the floor, without clothes, with nothing, in winter, one of the worst winters we’ve seen, the freezing temperatures, no fuel,” he said.
“We need hangars, or shelters for the long term; people are still sleeping rough in hospitals, mosques, unsafe buildings. This is a longer-term disaster, these people can’t go home, we’ve seen too much pain and suffering.”
The situation is so dire that, for some, the best available shelter is to be found in open gardens and fields.
“Survivors are sleeping in the gardens, all exposed without clothes, without shoes even. No blankets, the resources are running out quickly,” Issa said. “We need heavy equipment. Look at the countries that have rushed to help Turkey and the countries that tried to help us.”
‘Howling voices we couldn't get to’
Jableh, on the Mediterranean coast just south of the port city of Latakia, is another town that has suffered immense damage, with entire buildings flattened.
On the ground, frantic efforts to save those stuck in the ruins have taken place round the clock, with limited resources and a lack of support hindering relief operations.
During the first nights after the quake, people in Jableh reported hearing screams and wails from under the rubble. The howling voices echoed through the night. Many went unanswered.
Sami Khaddour is a volunteer helping the rescue efforts in the city. “We are doing our best with what we have,” he told MEE.
“Any help is welcome. For the first few days, we didn’t have lights or projectors, so we struggled to search. We were looking for people with the lights on our phones, there were many who we couldn’t get to.”
Syrians spread news online about people calling for help in specific areas, hoping that this would assist rescue efforts. Social media posts were passed on quickly.
One read: “Folks, anyone who has a projector should immediately go to the al-Asiliya area, as voices can be heard under the rubble crying out for help.”
Another read: “The al-Rihawi building in Jableh which collapsed has people trapped in it crying, unable to move.”
Latakia-based football club Tishreen ensured its stadium would be provided with food, drink and blankets to deal with the volume of refugees.
The victims include former Syrian international football player Nader Joukhadar, who died at his house in Jableh.
The deadly earthquakes come at a time of grave economic hardship, with 70 percent of Syrians needing humanitarian aid as they try to get through another harsh winter, with a shattered health system unable to recover from a cholera epidemic and the Covid-19 pandemic.
Many in the country have been relying on fellow Syrians rather than external support. Mariam al-Mahmood, a Damascus resident, was one of hundreds who opened their homes to those escaping the earthquake.
“Our home and the homes of the people of Damascus are open to any family or person who is afflicted and has no place,” she told MEE. “Anyone who knows a family who doesn’t know where to go can tell me, our house is open.”
Syrian activist Amjad Zarka summed up the feeling around the country in a social media post: “A gloomy day, a crude and violent repetition of the fact that life is very fragile. You’re in at a quarter past three, you’re not there at a quarter past three.”
Assistance from Arab countries
The Syrian government’s response has been hampered by a crippled economy that is constrained by sanctions and suffers from low supplies of fuel and gas.
President Bashar al-Assad chaired an emergency meeting to focus efforts on Aleppo, Hama and Latakia. Ministries, institutions and concerned authorities were mobilised in anticipation of the enormous struggle ahead.
Assad’s forces bombed areas hit by the earthquake hours after the disaster.
Relief operations have been aided by a flurry of Arab diplomatic activity, with Damascus hoping this is a sign that Syria’s reintegration into the Arab fold is gaining momentum.
Abu Dhabi’s ruler, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, told Assad in a phone call that he was ready to help with rescue efforts.
The Emiratis have allocated $100m in earthquake relief to Turkey and Syria, while Dubai’s ruler, Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ordered the delivery of $13.5m in urgent humanitarian aid to Syria.
Meanwhile, the European Union has promised the provision of non-food items, portable water, medicines, first aid and trauma care, dignity kits, and protection interventions including psychosocial support.
A UN-brokered deal between western donor states and the Assad government to deliver aid is being negotiated, according to Syrian analyst Karam Shaar.
For ordinary Syrians, who have suffered so much in a decade of war and destruction, there is the trauma of being thrown from a warm bed out onto the street, from shelter to rubble.
“The initial feeling may be futility, absurdity and chaos, but with a little scrutiny, the feeling can turn into calmness and the release of burdens,” wrote the activist Amjad Zarka. “This is bigger than all of us.”