Rescuers toil on in rubble of Turkey and Syria, survivors ever harder to find

MAYA GEBEILY, ALI KUCUKGOCMEN and KHALIL ASHAWI

RESCUERS pulled some survivors from the rubble, five days after Turkey’s most devastating earthquake since 1939 that also killed thousands of people in Syria, but hopes were fading for many more to be found.

In Kahramanmaras, close to the epicentre in south Turkey, there were fewer visible rescue operations amid the smashed concrete mounds of fallen houses and apartment blocks where trucks rumbled through streets shipping out debris.

The death toll kept growing – exceeding 25,300 across southern Turkey and northwest Syria. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, facing questions over earthquake planning and response time, has said authorities should have reacted faster.

Erdogan promised to start rebuilding cities within weeks, saying hundreds of thousands of buildings were now uninhabitable while issuing stern warnings against looters.

In the Turkish city of Antakya, several residents and rescue workers said they had seen looting.

In the rebel enclave of northwest Syria that suffered the country’s worst damage from the earthquake but where relief efforts are complicated by civil war, very little aid had entered despite a pledge from Damascus to improve access.

In Antakya, body bags lay on the streets and residents wore masks against the smell of death.

Inhabitants joined official rescuers.

“There is chaos, rubble and bodies everywhere,” said one, whose group had worked overnight trying to reach a university teacher calling to them from the rubble.

By morning, she had stopped responding to them, he said.

“There are still collapsed buildings untouched in the side streets,” he added.

At one building in Kahramanmaras, rescuers burrowed between concrete slabs to reach a five-year-old girl, lifting her on a stretcher, wrapped in foil, and chanting “God is great”.

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They said they believed two more survivors were clinging on under the same mound of rubble.

But though several other people were reportedly saved from the rubble on Saturday including 13-year-old Arda Can Ovan, few rescue efforts were resulting in such success.

The dangers were evident in a video filmed in Hatay in Turkey, showing a partially collapsed building suddenly slipping and burying a rescuer in an avalanche of debris before his colleagues could haul him out.

Two German rescue organisations suspended work on Saturday, citing reports of clashes between groups of people and gunfire. An Austrian team also briefly suspended work before resuming.

About 80,000 people were being treated in hospital, while 1.05 million left homeless by the quakes were in temporary shelters, Turkey said.

NEW GRAVES

At a mass grave outside Antakya, workers lowered bodybags into a freshly-dug trench where a mechanical digger covered them with earth. Drone footage showed lines of new graves and 80 bags awaiting burial.

New graves also covered a hillside outside Gaziantep, some marked with flowers or small Turkish flags flapping in the breeze.

A young woman squatted next to one, holding her face. By another, a woman broke down in sobs as a boy tried to comfort her. Beyond them, rows of freshly dug graves waited to be filled.

Among the living, survivors feared disease, with basic infrastructure smashed.

“If people don’t die here under the rubble, they’ll die from injuries, if not they will die from infection. There is no toilet here. It is a big problem,” said Gizem, a rescue worker from the southeastern province of Sanliurfa.

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U.N. aid chief Martin Griffiths described the earthquake as “the worst event in 100 years in this region”. He praised Turkey’s response, saying it was his experience that people in disaster zones were always disappointed early in relief efforts.

He predicted the death toll would at least double.

ERDOGAN

The disaster hit as Erdogan prepares for a national election scheduled for June. His popularity was already falling amid the soaring cost of living and a slumping Turkish currency.

Even before the quake, the vote was seen as Erdogan’s toughest challenge in two decades in power. Since the disaster, he has called for solidarity and condemned what he called “negative campaigns for political interest”.

People in the quake zone and opposition politicians have accused the government of slow and inadequate relief early on and critics have said the army, which played a main role after a 1999 earthquake, was not involved fast enough.

Erdogan has acknowledged some problems, notably getting aid into a region where transport links were damaged, but said the situation was subsequently brought under control.

Questions are also starting to be asked about the soundness of buildings in the quake-hit zone.

State prosecutors in Kahramanmaras said they will investigate the collapse of buildings and any irregularities in their construction. Police detained a contractor who built a 12-storey upmarket apartment block that collapsed in Hatay, as he waited to board a plane in Istanbul.

Monday’s 7.8 magnitude quake, with several powerful aftershocks across Turkey and Syria, ranks as the world’s seventh-deadliest natural disaster this century, approaching the 31,000 killed by a quake in neighbouring Iran in 2003.

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With a death toll so far of 21,848 inside Turkey, it is the country’s deadliest earthquake since 1939. More than 3,500 have died in Syria, where death tolls have not been updated since Friday.

SYRIA

In Syria, people waiting for news of family members stood solemnly by mounds of crushed concrete and twisted metal.

Many residents of rebel-held northwest Syria had already been displaced areas taken back by pro-government forces during the ongoing civil war but are now being made homeless again.

“On the first day, we slept in the streets. The second day we slept in our cars. Then we slept in other people’s homes,” said Ramadan Sleiman, 28, whose family had fled eastern Syria to the town of Jandaris, which was badly damaged in the quake.

In Aleppo, World Health Organisation chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus described the disaster as heartbreaking. “We have just come today with some supplies and look forward to continuing to support,” he told reporters.

Dozens of planeloads of aid have arrived in areas held by the Syrian government since Monday but little has reached the northwest, the worst-affected area.

In normal times, the United Nations delivers aid to the region across the border with Turkey via a single checkpoint, a policy that Damascus criticises as violating its sovereignty.



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