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Turkey-Syria earthquakes: Rescuers helping with 'bare hands'

February 6, 2023

An already battered infrastructure and a lack of technical equipment are hampering rescue operations in Syria, following Monday's devastating earthquake in southern Turkey.

Members of the Syrian civil defence, known as the White Helmets, search the rubble of a building for survivors following an earthquake on February 6, 2023.
The earthquake destroyed some of the old buildings already in bad shape due to the civil war, as well as new buildingsImage: Ahmad al-Atrash/AFP

Eyewitnesses have told DW that rescuers in Syria were trying to save victims of a devastating earthquake with their "bare hands" amid a lack of resources.

A 7.8 magnitude quake struck near Gaziantep in southern Turkey near the border with Syria early Monday, followed by a new 7.5 tremor after midday.

Over 3,500 people have so far been confirmed killed in the two countries, with the death toll expected to rise amid ongoing rescue operations.

Idlib's buildings destroyed, old and new

Syria's opposition-held Idlib province in the northwest was among the worst hit regions. The province lacks the technical equipment to rescue survivors of the earthquake, local journalist Omar Albam told DW.

Albam spoke from Sarmada, a small town some 30 kilometers north of Idlib city and on the border with Turkey. He said the town has been hit hard, nearly leveled to the ground by the quake.

"The earth shook twice. The aftershock felt much longer," Albam said, describing the first moments after the quake in Idlib. "People in Idlib streamed out of their homes, they were in panic."

He said the collapsed buildings were already in bad shape due to the country's civil war, ongoing for some 12 years, and particularly due to "the Russian airstrikes."

"But newer buildings also collapsed, all over Idlib province," the journalist said.

He said that entire families remained buried under the rubble.

White Helmets struggle with rescue operation

The voluntary Civil Defense Forces were unable to pull people from under the rubble, Albam said. Also known as the White Helmets, the group has been known for years for their ability to rescue people from under the rubble as a result of airstrikes bringing down buildings.

Albam said the earthquake also struck connection networks, with some areas completely cut off from communication.

"There are currently no reliable estimates of how many people have died as a result of the earthquake. There is chaos and it is still unclear at this time."

The White Helmets had said that the earthquake killed over 700 people in the opposition-held northwest Syria, injuring some 2000 more.

On Idlib's streets, residents spoke to DW about the horrors they witnessed. One described how he spent hours searching for his friend's family under debris.

"We kept on searching for them until 6 in the morning. We found his wife and two of his children dead. And this is what people are going through."

Many called for international support, saying that though immense, the White Helmets' effort was not enough.

Civil defense workers and residents search through the rubble of collapsed buildings in the town of Harem near the Turkish border, Idlib province, Syria, Monday, Feb. 6, 2023.
Idlib residents have urged for international support with rescue operationsImage: Ghaith Alsayed/AP/picture alliance

"I hope that humanitarian organizations can just help us remove the debris. Just equipment and medical help, nothing more," one said.

Another resident described the moments of the quake, saying: "Horrifying moments that we experienced at 4 in the morning. We have never witnessed such an earthquake. Many buildings collapsed. My family and I survived and the neighbors did too, but five people died here. The civil defense [White Helmets] is putting in all its effort. This seems to me like it was the Day of Judgment."

Ordinary civilians make up Aleppo's rescue operation

Syria's government-controlled Aleppo, which was badly hit by the devastating Monday earthquake, is not equipped to deal with the aftermath, with most helpers working without proper training, an anonymous eyewitness told DW.

The female 30-year-old resident of Aleppo, who did not wish to give her name for security reasons, said most of those helping with the rescue operations were ordinary civilians.

"Most of them are not trained for this. They help with their bare hands because there is hardly any recovery equipment. This is dangerous, they could be buried under the rubble themselves at any time."

The woman said the city was in urgent need of blood donation, amid a continuous rise in the number of those injured.

"I'm in total shock, I feel all the time that the earth keeps shaking underneath me, but it can also just be that it's my body that's shaking."

Though urged to evacuate their homes, the woman said the people of Aleppo have not heeded the calls.

"Because they don't know where to go, and they don't have money to stay in hotels further away from here."

The Syrian Health Ministry said 656 people were killed in the government-controlled provinces of Aleppo, Latakia, Hama and Tartus. Some 1,419 more were injured, the ministry said, adding that the toll was "not final."

Historic buildings partially destroyed

Some historical buildings were destroyed as a result of the quake in the provinces of Aleppo, Hama, and Tartus, the Syrian Cultural Ministry said.

The most notable damage reported was that which hit the historic Aleppo Citadel, among the world's oldest and largest castles. 

Aleppo's ancient citadel is damaged following a deadly earthquake that shook Syria on February 6, 2023.
The minaret inside Aleppo's ancient citadel, among the oldest in the world, was partially destroyed due to the earthquakeImage: AFP

The ministry said it sustained "little to medium" damage, including the collapse of parts of its Ottoman mill, and the destruction of its entrances. The dome of the minaret of the Ayyubid mosque inside the citadel also sustained partial collapse.

Technicians were inspecting the UNESCO-listed Aleppo Old City, the ministry said.

Elsewhere in Hama, the ministry reported the collapse of some historic buildings, as well as parts of the minaret of Imam Ismail Mosque. Meanwhile in Tartus, parts of the Marqab castle, a medieval fortress near the coast that was a major stronghold for a Christian order of knights during the Crusades, collapsed due to the quake.

rmt/rt (Reuters, AP, DW sources)