‘It is a catastrophe’: Earthquakes bring destruction across Turkey and Syria with more than 3,400 dead
A series of earthquakes and aftershocks striking the border region between southeast Turkey and northwest Syria have killed more than 3,400 people.
The 7.8 magnitude earthquake was centred in Kahramanmaras province, near the major Turkish cities of Gaziantep and Adana, and caused many buildings to collapse and kill many sleeping at the time. The same was true across the border in northern Syria, a region still facing a civil war that has stretched nearly 12 years.
Powerful aftershocks continued to rattle survivors as far away as northern Iraq as late as early afternoon Monday local time, with another major tremor above 7 magnitude in central Turkey.
“It is a catastrophe,” said Abdel Kafe al Hamdou, a Syrian activist and scholar in northern Syria, describing scenes in the vicinity of Atareb. “Dozens of people are still under the rubble. Dozens of people are dead. Unfortunately, everything happened at once in an area that didn’t have any equipment. People are working with their bare hands trying to save their relatives. People are really paralysed, and don’t know what to do.”
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Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the full capacity of his government was being deployed to respond to the disaster. In the country, the death toll stood at around 2,300, and more than 12,000 people were recorded as injured. More than 1,200 people were killed in Syria, according to figures from the Damascus government and rescue workers in the northwestern region controlled by the opposition.
“Our state has taken action with all its institutions since the earthquake,” Mr Erdogan said in a message posted to Twitter. “Our governorships immediately mobilised all the means in the provinces. Our institutions, especially our Turkish Armed Forces and municipalities, which have the infrastructure and training in disaster studies, have been summoned to duty.” Dozens of nations around the world have pledged their support, Mr Erdogan said, including search teams, funds or other logistical resources.
In addition to Turkey and Syria, the earthquake was felt as far away as Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon and Iraq. Those with relatives in the heart of the earthquake zone struggled to get in touch with their loved ones.
The earthquake also adds to the misery of people who have suffered and continue to endure hardship caused by years of overlapping wars and political turmoil across the two nations.
“The problem is that you are far from them and you don’t feel like you can do anything,” said one Syrian living in Istanbul who was struggling to get in touch with family in Homs province.
The earthquake left extraordinary destruction in cities across southeast Turkey and northern Syria. Entire apartment towers collapsed in the Turkish cities of Adana and Diyrabakir. People were buried in their homes, and aid workers warned that the death toll was likely to rise. Among the cities that were badly hit were Gaziantep, Malatya, Diyarbakir and Sanliurfa in Turkey and Aleppo and Idlib in Syria.
One resident of Gaziantep described scenes of panic which continued for hours. He said he was working at his computer in his fourth-floor flat when the earthquake struck. The earthquake felt like an eternity, lasting as long as two minutes. Mirrors fell and shattered. Lamps shook. As he got his bearings, he rushed out into the cold with other tenants in their pyjamas. He has been outside for hours, listening to the constant wail of burglar alarms and ambulance sirens screeching throughout the city of two million.
“There are children crying,” he said, describing as many as 50 aftershocks that made people terrified to re-enter their homes. “People are freezing on the streets and afraid to go back in. But the authorities are also telling people not to go back into their buildings.”
Video footage from the northwest Syrian town of Atareb showed rescue workers experienced at fishing people out from the rubble of airstrikes struggling to pull out children stuck in the mangled remains of buildings.
“I was sleeping and people were standing up and they told me, ‘Wake up! Wake up!’” said Rena Netjes, a Dutch researcher and scholar visiting northern Syria. “Things were trembling. The wall was shaking. I thought that a storage place had exploded or some fighters had come. People were quite panicking. And it went on for a while.”
Another witness described hospitals in northern Syria full of injured, with overwhelmed staff struggling to treat terrible injuries. As funding has dried up in recent months, many clinics and hospitals in northern Syria have closed, overwhelming the remaining medical facilities. The border between Syria and Turkey was shut down on Monday, making it impossible to take patients to hospitals to the north. In the northern Iraqi city of Erbil, people could be seen fleeing from their homes as aftershocks rumbled.
Among the dead in Turkey were at least three on-duty members of the armed forces, the defence ministry announced.
Turkey’s disaster relief agency Afad announced that it had dispatched nearly 2,000 search-and-rescue personnel and 150 vehicles to the region. But relief efforts were hampered by icy and foggy winter weather that has blocked roads and closed airports in Turkey, including the major hub of Istanbul.
The cold weather complicates everything, relief workers said. For example, electricity lines have been downed, cutting off power to many afflicted areas even as authorities shut off gas lines to prevent explosions and fire, thereby increasing the risks of hypothermia among survivors.
Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad reportedly summoned a meeting of his loyalists to discuss relief efforts. But much of the areas worst struck by the earthquake remain under the control of rebel groups or Kurdish militias rather than the Damascus regime.
Carsten Hansen, Middle East director at the Norwegian Refugee Council, said the initial quake struck at the worst time of the night and at the worst time of the year.
“This is a disaster that will worsen the suffering of Syrians already struggling with a severe humanitarian crisis,” he said in a statement. “Millions have already been forced to flee by war in the wider region and now many more will be displaced by disaster.”
Turkey is one of the most seismically active regions of the world, crisscrossed by active fault lines and subject to near-daily tremors. But the strength of the earthquake early Monday morning was rare, comparable to a 1939 incident considered the most severe recorded by modern equipment.
A 1999 earthquake in Turkey’s northwest measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale left at least 17,000 people dead and prompted a major overhaul of the country’s building and insurance regulations.
But the influx of Syrian and other refugees and other migrants over the last decade, as well as continued urbanisation, has led to lax enforcement of earthquake mitigation rules, according to critics.
The earthquake struck Turkey at a highly sensitive moment of political uncertainty ahead of the 14 May presidential and parliamentary elections. Scenes of newer buildings collapsing will surely reignite debates about long-standing accusations of exploitation by developers considered some of the most powerful figures in the country.
Both the national government and opposition-controlled municipalities and political figures quickly swung into action after the quake, making hurried efforts to offer support and gather resources for the stricken regions.
The United Kingdom and the Netherlands were among the first countries offering aid, according to Afad. Neighbouring Azerbaijan announced that it was preparing to dispatch 370 emergency workers to aid in relief efforts. Turkey is often too proud of its own institutions to ask for foreign assistance. But as the scale of the earthquake damage became clear, Ankara authorities quickly asked the world for help.