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Disaster and Dystopia: The Earthquake in Southern Turkey and Northern Syria

The devastating earthquake will be a tipping point in modern history, where a large number of Syrians and Turks—myself included—will remember it as one in which many of their loved ones lost their lives.

I never imagined that my trip to spend some time with my family and friends in a small village in the Hatay province in the south of Turkey would turn into a nightmare and a real life dystopia. That night, I could not fall asleep: there was a strong rainstorm and the power went out after midnight. This insomnia kept me awake until 4:17 am, when everything began to shake and scream—people, buildings, and the earth itself. The first few seconds passed by very slowly; they were as slow as the earthquake was violent. My mother, brothers, their children, and I hardly made it out of our two-floor house. I could see the panic on everyone’s face and in their eyes, despite the complete darkness surrounding us. Silence prevailed for a while, then everyone started shouting to check on each other. Immediately after, I started calling my relatives who had been living in the surrounding neighborhoods and villages since their displacement from Syria in 2013.

Being displaced from Syria as a result of the violence committed by the Assad regime forced each family to create a group chat on WhatsApp which helped us communicate quickly with everyone, including my older brother who lives in northwestern Syria since his displacement.

The horror did not stop at the first earthquake. The earth violently shook again, and as soon as it stopped, I began to hear the sound of buildings collapsing in the nearby area. I did not realize the magnitude of the disaster at the time, and the fact that the already tragic situation could become even worse. Ten minutes after the quake, I had a quick look at Twitter to check the earthquake’s magnitude, and I was surprised to see a tweet by Dr. Yazid Sayegh saying that he felt the earthquake in Beirut, and another tweet stating that the earthquake was felt in Cairo too. This is when I realized that we were in the midst of a large-scale disaster. A little after that, the seismic center announced that the earthquake had a magnitude of 7.8. We stayed out in the open, where complete darkness reigned and heavy rain fell, as we were scared of other earthquakes and of buildings collapsing. We returned to the homes very briefly in order to take out some blankets to keep ourselves warm. While embracing the children, trying to reassure them, we began to realize what had happened and we knew that it would be very difficult for them to comprehend what was going on.

Time seemed to move slower, with every second feeling like an entire minute. It was still not dawn yet, but some people began attempting to access the destroyed buildings to rescue those trapped under the rubble. In the beginning, members of the community were the ones trying to get people out—rescue crews had not yet arrived. Their absence was not an indicator of inaction, but rather that such a massive disaster made any rescue efforts feel like trying to extinguish a massive fire with a water bottle.

After sunrise, the disaster began to unfold, and bad weather conditions made rescue operations even harder. The aftershocks—3,666 by the evening of February 13—did not stop frightening people. Along with the aftershocks of varying magnitudes, the second earthquake caused more destruction and left no home unscathed.

Around noon, rescue teams, firefighters, and ambulances finally began arriving at the village where I was staying; we were close to the city of Iskenderun and near the highway to the city of Antakya. At the time, I had to choose whether to check on my friends or save my phone battery—power was still out since midnight. The damaged infrastructure resulted in poor communication services and weak internet, with the inability to make phone calls sometimes. This contributed to conflicting news about the status of some relatives and friends spread in all regions of southern Turkey. After making some calls to check in on a number of friends living in or around Antakya, I came to know that the damages incurred where I was were less compared to other areas. I later learned, with great sorrow, that some of my acquaintances had passed away, including my friend’s young daughter, whose heart had stopped as a result of the earthquake. I had just visited her family near Antakya one day before the disaster.

We spent the first night outside in the very cold weather. It was a long night; no one could sleep, there was no electricity or water, and we ran through our savings of bread and food, which we all shared, as we waited for dawn. 

On February 7, the catastrophe and its aftermath became more evident. The number of victims increased by the minute, and rescue operations were still in action, especially with the arrival of rescue teams and engineering equipment to the stricken areas. Our neighbor’s two sisters remained under the rubble for 40 hours without anyone knowing whether they were alive or not, until a boy heard their voices, which then prompted the rescue teams to rush into the location and remove the rubble. They were able to save both of them—a miracle as their neighbors did not make it. 

Some people contacted me from areas not affected by the earthquake, asking me to go to the city of Antakya, which was 53 kilometers away from me, to check on their loved ones and friends. Although it was difficult to reach the city, I was finally able to enter it. What I saw shocked me to the core. The buildings, houses, and shops on both sides of the road leading to the city had collapsed to the ground. This was also the case when I tried entering the city from another route—most buildings had collapsed there too, while the ones still standing were cracked and greatly damaged, making them uninhabitable.

The car could not go any further into Antakya. I tried to reach the addresses I had, in vain. There was a complete failure in communications networks. Even though I used two SIM cards from two different operators, I could not make calls despite the attempts of these operators to run mobile towers on vehicles to cover for the towers that were destroyed by the earthquakes. With the impossibility of reaching the location, I decided to turn back, forcing me to walk at least 10 kilometers to head out of the city. With no running public transportation, I had to hitchhike back to Iskenderun. The scenes that I saw in Antakya were terrifying, and they will forever remain burnt into my memory, along with the memories of what I witnessed during the war in Syria between 2011 and 2013, before my displacement to Turkey.

Given the horrors we lived through, some—myself included—liken what happened in Turkey and northwest Syria to the Day of Resurrection. The process of burying the dead the following days was quick. The clerics considered the deceased to be martyrs, and the dead were accordingly buried with their clothes, bloodied and dusty. The graves were given numbers, and pictures of the deceased, as well as their fingerprints and DNA samples, were documented in order to identify them at a later stage.

Ambulances and convoys of engineering equipment and rescue teams continued to flow along the road between Iskenderun and Antakya, and the sound of the sirens that filled the streets still echoes in my mind until today. The burden of the disaster was too great for AFAD, the national disaster response agency, to shoulder alone. The Turkish army, the gendarmerie, institutions, municipalities from other cities, civil society organizations, and local people joined forces in an attempt to help out.

Efforts were made to save lives and shelter those affected in Turkey. Despite this, over 44,374 people were killed and 115,000 others were injured. There were various factors and failures that led to such a big number of casualties, such as the large scale of the disaster that affected 10 provinces, in addition to the corruption of building contractors and municipalities in the affected areas, and the inconsistency in coordination among agencies and institutions.

On the other hand, the organizations in northwestern Syria, led by the White Helmets, did their best to try to save lives despite all the bad conditions they faced, such as the failure of the United Nations to help those affected in the area. The United Nations had argued at the time that the entry of aid was limited only to the Bab Al-Hawa crossing, in accordance with Security Council Resolution No. 2672. This greatly aggravated the plight of people in northwestern Syria, where at least 4,537 had died and 8,689 were injured as of February 27. Rescue operations and housing efforts were almost completely carried out by locals, in addition to some aid sent by some clans of the eastern region of Syria, and countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Two additional crossings were later reopened after deliberations between the United Nations and the Assad government, more than one week after the earthquake, allowing for the entry of humanitarian aid. 

Amidst the gloomy scenes of destruction, there was another scene blatantly devoid of humanity, as Bashar al-Assad, the head of the Syrian regime, was seen attending a meeting with members of his government, smiling, although some government-controlled areas were damaged by the earthquake. Around 1,414 people were killed and 2,349 were injured in these areas as a result of the collapse of some buildings which were previously damaged by barrel bombs that his regime has been dropping in numerous areas since 2011. Assad showed his malicious smile yet again when he visited Aleppo to meet those affected by the earthquake.

Assad seemed happy to take advantage of this disaster as part of his efforts to lift the US and European sanctions imposed on him, under the pretext of supporting relief efforts, despite the fact that these sanctions do not target any humanitarian, medical, or food aid. However, a humanitarian exemption (General License 23) was issued by the US government, allowing sanctions for humanitarian financial transactions to be suspended for six months. It is noteworthy that planes coming from Arab and other countries in the region landed in Syrian airports carrying medical and relief aid. News reports revealed that the regime’s corrupt networks had sold part of the aid in black markets.

Turkey’s devastating earthquake will change the region in many ways, be it demographically, economically, and socially. It will be a tipping point in modern history, where a large number of Syrians and Turks—myself included—will remember this event as one in which many of their loved ones lost their lives to a tragic earthquake. Today, some Turks are living the bitter experience of displacement for the first time, while Syrians are living it for a second or even third time. 

A few days later, I returned to Istanbul and, despite the suffering I endured, I am very determined to help those affected by the earthquake. I felt that I could best do my part in helping out through my involvement in fundraising or mobilizing efforts to provide assistance to those who need it. It is through my work at the Syrian Forum, the parent institution of Omran Center for Studies, and the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, that I can help. I am determined to make Syrians’ voices heard, and tell the world to be by the side of those affected, not to leave them to a fate that ends in death, and not to let them down again as they have suffered for too long at the hands of the Syrian regime.

Muhsen Almustafa is a non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP), his articles focus on security, defense, and governance issues in Syria.


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