Massive quakes kill 2,600 in Turkey, Syria

ISTANBUL (Agencies): A huge earthquake killed more than 2,600 people and injured thousands more on Monday in Turkiye and northwest Syria, flattening apartment blocks and heaping more destruction on Syrian cities already devastated by years of war.

The magnitude 7.8 quake, which hit before sunrise in bitter winter weather, was the worst to strike Turkiye this century. It was followed in the early afternoon by another large quake of magnitude 7.7. It was not immediately clear how much damage had been done by the second quake, which like the first was felt across the region and endangered rescuers struggling to pull casualties from the rubble.

“We were shaken like a cradle. There were nine of us at home. Two sons of mine are still in the rubble, I’m waiting for them,” said a woman with a broken arm and injuries to her face, speaking in an ambulance near the wreckage of a seven-storey block where she had lived in Diyarbakir in southeast Turkey.

In Turkiye, the death toll stood at 1,498, the disaster agency said. At least 716 people were killed in Syria, according to figures from the Damascus government and the United Nations. Poor internet connections and damaged roads between some of the worst-hit cities in Turkey’s south, homes to millions of people, hindered efforts to assess and address the impact.

Temperatures in some areas were expected to fall to near freezing overnight, worsening conditions for people trapped under rubble or left homeless. Rain was falling on Monday after snowstorms swept the country at the weekend. It is already the highest death toll from an earthquake in Turkey since 1999, when a tremor of similar magnitude devastated the heavily populated eastern Marmara Sea region near Istanbul, killing more than 17,000.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who is preparing for a tough election in May, called it a historic disaster and the worst earthquake to hit Turkiye since 1939, but said authorities were doing all they could. “Everyone is putting their heart and soul into efforts although the winter season, cold weather and the earthquake happening during the night makes things more difficult,” he said. Turkish state broadcaster TRT showed a building collapse in the southern province of Adana after the second quake. It was not immediately clear if it was evacuated.

In Syria, already wrecked by more than 11 years of civil war, the health ministry said 461 people had been killed and more than 1,326 injured. In the Syrian rebel-held northwest, a United Nations spokesperson said 255 people had died. The Norwegian Refugee Council said the earthquake would only add to the suffering of millions of Syrians already enduring a humanitarian crisis due to the civil war.

In the Turkish city of Diyarbakir, Reuters journalists saw dozens of rescue workers searching through a mound of debris, all that was left of a big building, and hauling off bits of wreckage as they looked for survivors. Occasionally they raised their hands and called for quiet, listening for sounds of life. Men carried a girl wrapped in blankets from a collapsed building in the city. In Izmir, drone footage showed rescue workers stood atop a hill of rubble where a building once stood, working to lift slabs of masonry.

Footage circulated on Twitter showed two neighbouring buildings collapsing one after the other in Syria’s Aleppo, filling the street with billowing dust. Two residents of the city, which has been heavily damaged in the war, said the buildings had fallen in the hours after the quake, which was also felt in Cyprus and Lebanon. In the Syrian rebel-held town of Jandaris in Aleppo province, a mound of concrete, steel rods and bundles of clothes lay where a multi-storey building once stood.

“There were 12 families under there. Not a single one came out. Not one,” said a thin young man, his eyes wide open in shock and his hand bandaged. Raed Fares of the Syrian White Helmets, a rescue service in the rebel-held territory known for pulling people from the ruins of buildings destroyed by air strikes, said they were in “a race against time to save the lives of those under the rubble”.

Abdul Salam al Mahmoud, a Syrian in the town of Atareb, said it felt “like the apocalypse”. Syrian state television showed footage of rescue teams searching for survivors in heavy rain and sleet. President Bashar al-Assad held an emergency cabinet meeting to review the damage and discuss the next steps, his office said.

People in Damascus and in the Lebanese cities of Beirut and Tripoli ran into the street and took to their cars to get away from their buildings in fear of collapses, witnesses said. Footage on broadcaster CNNTurk showed the historic Gaziantep Castle was severely damaged.

In the Turkish city of Malatya, a rescue worker crawled into a collapsed building, trying to identify a survivor trapped under the wreckage, in footage released by Turkiye’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD). “What colour are you wearing? Are you wearing pink? Please take care of yourself for the moment, I cannot see anything else,” the rescue worker could be heard saying. Erdogan said 45 countries had offered to help with the search and rescue efforts.

The United States was “profoundly concerned” about the quake and was monitoring events closely, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on Twitter. “We stand ready to provide any and all needed assistance,” he said. The US Geological Survey said the quake struck at a depth of 17.9 kilometres. It reported a series of earthquakes, one of 6.7 magnitude. The region straddles seismic fault lines.

“The combination of large magnitude and shallow depth made this earthquake extremely destructive,” Mohammad Kashani, Associate Professor of Structural and Earthquake Engineering at the University of Southampton, said. It was Turkiye’s most severe quake since 1999, when one of similar magnitude devastated Izmit and the heavily populated eastern Marmara Sea region near Istanbul, killing more than 17,000. Tremors were felt in the Turkish capital of Ankara, 460km northwest of the epicentre, and in Cyprus, where police reported no damage.

Meanwhile, when Kasem al-Abrash felt the ground shaking beneath his feet, his mind immediately went back to his hometown of Idlib in northern Syria. He had fled for his life from there to Gaziantep, across the border in Turkey, in 2020. But on Monday morning, like millions of people across southern Turkey and northern Syria, al-Abrash woke up to the heavy shakes of a 7.8 magnitude earthquake, which hit the wider region and left death and devastation in its wake.

“I realised, oh no, I’m actually supposed to be in a safe space, in Turkey,” al-Abrash said. He immediately ran down the building as parts of his apartment collapsed. His thoughts went immediately to his family and friends still in Syria, where the earthquake has also destroyed countless lives. “In Syria I learned to manage these kinds of situations, but I never expected to have to relive that trauma again,” al-Abrash said.

He is not the only one to have arrived in Gaziantep seeking refuge, only to be cruelly surprised by Monday’s earthquake. When 21-year-old law student Karina Horlach woke up in the early hours of the morning to her bed heavily shaking, she had flashbacks from the last time she was in Ukraine. “It’s February, and exactly one year ago I was woken up by that same bed shaking,” Horlach told Al Jazeera, with panic in her voice. “But then, I realised I wasn’t in Ukraine. It took me some time to understand what was going on.”

Horlach is enrolled in an Erasmus student programme in Gaziantep. She was given the opportunity to escape from the war in her own country and settle as a temporary refugee in a supposedly safer environment. She never expected to get post-traumatic memories of Kharkiv, her hometown, in the city that has sheltered her for the past six months. “I thought I was experiencing an air strike again,” Horlach said. “It gave me flashbacks of home.”

Gaziantep, one of southern Turkey’s major cities, has a population of almost two million people, and between one-quarter and one-third of them are Syrian refugees. Fifty-year-old Sawsan Dahman lives in the same building as al-Abrash. When it started shaking, she ran down to the street with her family of four children. She looked desperately to find a safer shelter as the cold air, rain and snow battered her face. Dahman said that she immediately thought of the big mosque located in 100 Yil Park, a green area near the centre of the city, where she found local Turkish people waiting to help.

She immediately liaised with her Syrian contacts through various WhatsApp groups to inform them of the safe shelter. “Often, because of language barriers, Arabic speakers here are left behind in emergency situations,” Dahman said. “I wanted to fill that gap.” In just a few hours, Dahman had become a point of reference for the Syrian community in Gaziantep, as well as women of any background who found themselves alone.

A widow, Dahman has already faced having to take care of her children alone on the journey from her home in Damascus to Turkey. But as she spoke from the common prayer room in the early afternoon, a big aftershock shook the mosque. With horror in her eyes, Dahman grabbed her children – aged between 17 and 23 – as flashbacks from the war in Syria began overwhelming her. For others, it was the more immediate memory of the earlier earthquake that set them running in every direction.

The minaret shook, threatening to fall on the crowd. A child was hit by a car, amidst a rainstorm, and people gathered to help the girl. Amidst the despair and adverse weather, people have found temporary common shelters where they can, some wrapped in blankets inside improvised tents on park benches. Others took refuge inside cafes – the few that had dared to open – sitting in circles around electric heaters. Warming his hands around the heater, 24-year-old economics student Izzat Umman thinks of the shock of waking up to his books falling on his head.

“I didn’t know what was going on, I just ran to the streets, seeing other people running,” he said. “We’ve never experienced something like this here. A single minute felt like 15.” Already battered by the unusually bad weather conditions, Gaziantep was not prepared for such an emergency, he added. “It came so unexpectedly that we’re still in shock.” As the day went on, the aftershocks did not stop and came unexpectedly, leaving Gaziantep in constant fear of the next quake. The traumatic experience will resonate for many for a long time to come.

Many have now taken to fleeing the city in their cars or buses, with the airport closed. Walking around the rubble of the buildings and streets he used to know by heart, al-Abrash saw an image his eyes were bitterly familiar with. “We already had to deal with traumatic experiences from the Syrian conflict. Now that we’re a few kilometres from the border, it seems like history has repeated itself. And we’ll have to confront ourselves with yet another trauma.”