A tale of two disasters: Behind the scenes of the Syria-Turkey earthquake

* This story was first published by The New Daily on February 12, 2023

They are two countries struck by the same disaster – but could easily be different worlds.

Only a single border crossing allows humanitarian access from Turkey into Syria – a country where a decade-long crisis forgotten by most of the world is far from over.

Humanitarians fear the level of aid needed won’t get through in time.

“For humanitarians, this earthquake is like responding to two different disasters,” World Vision Australia humanitarian Patrick Thomas said.

Even before the earthquake, people were living in appalling conditions in north-eastern Syria.

It’s an area beaten down by nearly 12 years of civil war, with millions displaced, few basic services, health facilities and schools bombed, and hundreds and thousands struggling to get enough food.

“Then you add in the fact that there’s sanctions, a dire fuel shortage, ongoing conflict, a cholera outbreak and freezing temperatures … it is very challenging as humanitarians to respond,” Mr Thomas said.

“The rescue and recovery effort is going to be much faster in Turkey where there is machinery, better defined and resourced co-ordination, search and rescue teams, and far easier access.

“But we are doing as much as we can to help on both sides of the border, and fortunately we already had our people working in these areas. We are now boosting our numbers on the ground so we can save as many lives as possible.”

Aid workers, volunteers and partners on the ground began distributing fuel, blankets, heaters, tents, tarpaulins and hygiene kits immediately after the quake.

Pop-up medical hubs to treat minor injuries and illness are next on the priority list.

‘A body evacuated every two minutes’ – a window into ground zero
The stories emerging from the ground are sobering. Pregnant women lying under the rubble. Children left orphaned or separated from their families. People in a state of panic.

“We can still hear voices under the rubble,” says Cenk Kalfaoglu, who is at ground zero in Turkey.

“The situation is deteriorating, there are a lot of buildings that are just not accessible. There’s no water electricity, food, I can see that people are terrified, and afraid of going back to their houses. The temperate is minus-1 degrees Celsius.”

He said more support is desperately needed from Australians and around the world.

In Idlib, Syria, a body is being evacuated every two minutes.
“Search and rescue team are barely covering the situation on the ground,” says one aid worker.

“It’s very bad – and there’s a lack of capabilities and equipment to help people stuck under the rubble.

“The psychological distress we are going through is astronomical. The amount of catastrophe and destruction behind us, the number of victims and people who passed away is too much.”

He says people are in desperate need of more shelter, food, medication, medical care and mobile clinics.

“There are still pregnant women under the rubble and in the open. The more we describe, the more terrible it becomes.”

What lies ahead for children
Our hearts have soared and sunk this week as we’ve watched the media stories. Babies lifted from the rubble. A father holding the cold hand of his daughter who perished. For those who survived, the journey is just beginning.

“We need to surround children with care; this is very traumatising,” World Vision CEO Daniel Wordsworth said.

Right now, hundreds of thousands are stranded outside their homes, at risk of hypothermia and illness amid freezing temperatures and a lack of food and clean water.

In addition to helping meet their immediate needs, organisations like World Vision protect these children from the risks that can follow disasters – exploitation, abuse, and trafficking – beginning with setting up child-friendly spaces’. In these safe spaces, children can play and receive psycho-social support.

“Restoring a sense of safety is vital,” Mr Wordsworth said.

The long journey to recovery
The first stage in a major earthquake is the urgent search and rescue mission, where ‘first responders’ dive into buildings and try and pull survivors from the rubble.

This is followed by the ‘immediate response’ which lasts for next three months, and then the longer-term ‘rehabilitation’ phase.

The first phase will likely last a week or more in Turkey and Syria. This is conducted by specialists and government as it can be extremely dangerous to extract people from buildings that may collapse at any moment.

Junus David, who flew to Haiti and Indonesia after major earthquakes, says: “Families will be standing in front of the rubble, hoping to find their family members. Even when you’re using technology, in situations like these the houses are very fragile. There’s no power, so everything has to be done in daylight, and sometimes the rescue workers have to say ‘We can do no more today’. That’s when there’s a lot of shouting and crying. I’ve witnessed those times. It’s very emotional.”

During this phase, organisations like World Vision set up temporary shelters where people can get help, but there are extraordinary logistical challenges when it comes to supplies, he says.

“There’s a lot of confusion. And the smell is what always gets me.

“Our response is focused on temporary shelters, such as tents, and aid workers providing assistance, such as food, cash. People don’t dare sleep in buildings because of aftershocks.”

When the immediate emergency passes, the response shifts into the second phase, which lasts about three months. This shift can be a very difficult time for survivors.

“I remember in Sulawesi, after the earthquake, when the government had to shift their attention from rescue efforts to helping those who had survived, it was very emotional,” Mr David said.

International organisations will strengthen their partnerships on the ground during this phase, boost the aid being delivered and monitor progress.

Water trucking will be crucial as the earthquake has damaged pipes in Turkey and Syria. Clearing the rubble is also vital to prevent hygiene issues and disease.

“What breaks my heart is seeing the few things they have in their tent – it’s all they have left in the world,” he said. “Often they don’t even have shoes because they just had to run.”

The final phase is the rebuilding – and this could take years.

When victims become heroes
Just an hour after the quake struck, World Vision aid worker Cenk Kalfaoglu and his team were distributing crucial items to the cold, injured and grieving in Hatay, Turkey.

“We took our families to a safe place first … then we found out what the essential needs were,” he said.

In a disaster like this, many responders are also the survivors.
Many of World Vision’s staff and volunteers are locals and have been devastated by the earthquake. The tight-knit group working in the region is reeling at the loss of a Syrian teacher, her husband and six children.

Those who survived have been huddling in their cars, mosques and schools at night.

“There’s not always enough fuel for people to turn the heater in the cars on,” says another staff member and father in northern Syria.

As his own house shook on Monday, he told of having to make an impossible decision – choose between which children to take when the pre-dawn quake struck.

“While we were sleeping, the house started shaking; I immediately ran to my children,” he said.

“I did not know which one to carry. I could not reach the door, the distance was very far, and a minute of time was like years of helplessness and fear.”

They all survived and he too has rolled up his sleeves to help.

Ahlam Alrasheed, a protection co-ordinator for World Vision in Syria, says it has been heartening to see “people come to help each other”.

“People proved how much they love and care for each other. They stand by one another and those who are affected,” she said.

You can help provide shelter and warmth for families who have lost everything here.

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