The sound of busy hands and heavy equipment working to find signs of life has continued for more than six days since two major earthquakes struck Turkey’s southeastern region along the border with Syria on February 6.
In war-torn, rebel-held Idlib, earthquakes flattened scores of buildings, trapping residents under rubble and exposing them to freezing temperatures.
Oussama al-Hussein, coordinator of a health NGO working in the area, told Al Jazeera that rescuers could hear voices under the rubble, but without proper equipment and international aid, the White Helmets and other local rescue teams were struggling to save people.
Four members of a family were rescued from the collapsed building on Tuesday. In a video released by the White Helmets, the crowd can be heard cheering as each child is pulled out alive.
These hopeful moments highlight the many quiet searches that ended with the body being found. With every hour that passes, there is less and less hope for further rescues.
Delays in international aid and assistance due to closed borders and roads destroyed by earthquakes have compounded the challenges.
People have been completely destroyed from the inside, first by the years of war, and now by this. They are desperate and hopeless. We need medicines, all kinds of ready-made food, hygiene items.
Survival in freezing conditions
Rescuers are racing against time, working in snow, rain and freezing temperatures of minus 8 degrees Celsius (18 degrees Fahrenheit) to excavate the remains of buildings leveled by the earthquakes.
More severe weather is expected to hit the region, making rescue and relief operations even more difficult. Collapsed buildings and destroyed roads have also made it difficult to locate survivors and deliver vital aid to affected areas. Several airports were also closed after being damaged by the earthquakes.
We are as safe as the tent can protect us. Children are cold at night, I have a three-year-old son, he gets scared as soon as the tent shakes and runs towards me, asking if it’s happening again?
The epicenter of the first quake, about 33 kilometers (20 miles) from the city of Gaziantep, the capital and provincial capital in southeastern Turkey, is home to millions of Syrian refugees living in southern Turkey. Thousands of residents were left homeless due to low temperatures.
Mouaz Haj Bakri, a Syrian living in the United States, said he lost about 40 family members in the earthquakes. Most of them are displaced and live in the city of Antakya in the Turkish province of Hatay, which was almost completely destroyed.
You can’t live in the city. Those who are still there either cannot leave or stay only to find their loved ones. People sleep in front of their destroyed houses, at night they light a fire in a circle of people because they are waiting to dig up the bodies. They want to bury their dead.
“My relatives who are still alive can see their feet [deceased] nieces and their brothers and sisters, but they can’t get them out from under the rubble,” Mouaz said. “It was a challenge to ask the Turkish authorities for rescuers and means to remove the bodies. My family did it themselves. A relative was removing the rubble with his hands. No one else helped them. This was the story of many Syrians [in Antakya].”
The situation in Syria, he said, is even worse.
“People in northern Syria are cold, hungry and defeated,” said Mouaz, “We are talking about displaced people who have already lost their homes once and become homeless again. People will die from the cold, and no one will count them in the earthquake [casualties]. People will die of hunger, and no one will count them. They need a lot of help.”
How many people are affected?
The World Health Organization has warned that more than 23 million people could be affected by the powerful earthquakes that have devastated Turkey and Syria.