people search through rubble

‘There were screams everywhere’: Residents of northwest Syria grapple with quake aftermath

​​​​​​​Entire neighborhoods have been leveled in northwestern Syria, where an earthquake struck in the early hours of Monday morning. This region of Syria is home to millions of people displaced by years of civil war. Even before the quake, they had been living in already dire conditions.

The World

Abdul Kafi Alhamdo first felt the tremors at around 4 in the morning. He thought that there was another bombing.

Syria has been at war for more than a decade and the sound of airstrikes are not all that unusual.

“But a bombing wouldn’t last for that [long],” he said. “[After] 10 seconds, no, it’s still moving, so I knew it’s an earthquake.”

Alhamdo and his wife scooped up their two kids and started to leave the house but there was nowhere to turn. In the confusion, he recounted, he wasn’t sure if outside was any safer, so they decided to stay inside. Thankfully, their home wasn’t destroyed.

Alhamdo and his family are among those who survived the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck southern Turkey and northwest Syria on Monday. Alhamdo and other witnesses described a “doomsday” scene. Entire neighborhoods have been leveled. This region of Syria is home to millions of people displaced by years of civil war. Even before the quake, they had been living in already dire conditions.

It was only when Alhamdo stepped out of his home to survey the damage that he realized the scale of devastation.

He drove around nearby cities and recorded videos, which he shared with The World.

In one, he is standing on top of a pile of rubble where the city’s market once stood.

“This area five years ago witnessed a very harsh attack from war planes,” he said into the camera. “A lot of houses were destroyed. Those houses that were affected are now on the ground.”

Behind him, no structure is intact. There’s a large excavation vehicle nearby. But people are seen using their bare hands to search for survivors.

“There were screams from everywhere,” he said. “I saw some people who [were] putting their ears on the rubble, waiting [for] any response from under the rubble to know that their relatives or beloved are still alive.”

Later, Alhamdo shared another video that showed rescuers rushing a newborn away from a collapsed building and to safety.

Alhamdo messaged on WhatsApp that the baby’s mother had just given birth amid the rubble.

Meanwhile, hospitals in that part of Syria are overwhelmed.

“When I tell you this is the worst I have seen, I literally mean that,” Dr. Shajul Islam, who works at the Shafi hospital in Idlib, said in a series of voice messages to The World.

Over the last seven years, Islam, a British-born anesthesiologist, said that he has seen a lot suffering from the fighting. But this is much worse, he said.

“We’re literally at the entrance of the hospital deciding which patients we’re going to try to save, which patients we’re not going to make an attempt to save.”

At the hospital, they are putting several patients in one bed and triaging who gets a ventilator, because they have so few.

Most other hospitals in the area are closed, Islam said, either because of the war, or because they don’t have the supplies to continue operating.

Before the earthquake, Islam’s hospital used to send some patients across the border to Turkey to get treatment. They can’t do that now.

“Unfortunately, because Turkey is overstretched with the amount of casualties they have, they’ve closed the border, so they’re not accepting any of our patients,” Islam explained.

An earthquake of this magnitude would be hard to deal with for any functioning state. But this part of Syria is controlled by a rebel group. The Syrian government has fought to take back Idlib over the years, but it hasn’t succeeded.

About 3 million people have fled from other parts of the country to Idlib.

“These are communities that have been living in perpetual conflict zones,” said Jennifer Higgins, policy, advocacy and communications coordinator for Syria at the International Rescue Committee.

“They’ve witnessed multiple atrocities, and many of them are already living with life changing, not only physical, but also emotional wounds and they’ve already been displaced multiple times.”

There is only one UN-mandated border crossing that is open for humanitarian aid to get through.

“The main response for northwest Syria fundamentally moves through this Bab al-Hawa crossing checkpoint,” said Higgins, who is based in Amman, Jordan.

The vote at the United Nations to keep that border crossing open was renewed last month and is only good for six months.

“The main amount of medical supplies that are going into northwest Syria are also [going] through this crossing and we really have to think about the capacity now for that health system to be able to scale up and respond as necessary,” Higgins said.

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