As the death toll rises inexorably into the thousands, stories emerge from cities across the south of Turkey and northern Syria of children, old people, and even entire families pulled alive miraculously from beneath rubble by the tens of thousands of desperate survivors and rescue teams. They clamber over fallen masonry, prising it off their buried families with bare hands. But it is no more than a drop in the ocean. Entire towns were flattened by the 7.8 magnitude Gaziantep quake in the early hours of Monday morning. A second quake 60 miles away struck in the early afternoon.
An initial Turkish assessment estimated that more than 6,200 buildings have been destroyed. Over 13 million people have been affected by the biggest quake the region has witnessed since 1939, the UN predicting that 23 million Turkish and Syrian people, one million of them children, will suffer some form of consequences.
Survivors, forced into the open, in freezing cold, rain and snow, now face power shutdowns, food and water being cut off, and impassable roads, hugely complicating rescue efforts. The UN says aid delivery into Syria from Turkey has been suspended because of logistical issues.
In northern Syria, one of the last remaining pockets held by what remains of Syria’s splintered opposition, the situation is even worse. Entire towns collapsed around the people. They call out for help, but there is almost no one to respond. Some 2.7 million displaced people living near Turkey’s border and the epicentre of the earthquake already rely on humanitarian aid for survival, many living in informal settlements on the outskirts of cities, in open fields and abandoned buildings.
More than a decade of war has seen much of the area’s infrastructure, including its hospitals, destroyed by the Syrian regime. It has left the people with almost nothing; now they have even less. There is a responsibility on Damascus to put such hostilities aside and to facilitate international aid to its beleaguered citizens.
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared a three-month state of emergency. The emergency rule, which will ominously run up to just before Turkey’s hotly contested general election in May, gives his government extraordinary powers, which international donors must urge him to use with restraint.
The international response has so far been united and speedy – Turkey has welcomed offers of aid from 70 countries and international organisations and the EU has mobilised more than 30 search and rescue or medical teams. It is to be hoped that these, and teams from the likes of Iran, China, and the UAE will find ways, in the face of this humanitarian tragedy, to work together. The scale of this disaster demands that politics not be allowed to hamper the rescue effort.