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Holding on to hope

After a massive earthquake kills thousands, relief agencies speed aid to an already troubled region


Civil defense workers and residents search through the rubble of collapsed buildings near the Turkish border in the town of Harem, Syria. Ghaith Alsayed/AP

Holding on to hope
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Cenk Kalfaoglu doesn’t know if he will ever feel safe again.

On Monday, Feb. 6, at 4:17 in the morning in southeastern Turkey, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake jolted him and his family from sleep. They scrambled to escape their shaking building, joining throngs of frightened neighbors running into the streets. Around them, many buildings had crumbled completely, crushing occupants. Others teetered precariously as people fled.

Now he, his wife, and their young children sleep in their car at night, terrified that more quakes may come and destroy his seven-­story apartment building.

Johan Mooij, World Vision’s Syria crisis response director, told us his colleague Kalfaoglu’s story, noting the family lives near the quake’s epicenter in Turkey’s Gaziantep province. The quake rocked hundreds of miles through Turkey and neighboring Syria. More than 200 aftershocks—including a 7.5 magnitude temblor the same afternoon—followed the initial quake.

With casualty numbers rising rapidly in the first days following the disaster, more than 33,000 people had been declared dead by Feb. 12, with tens of thousands injured. Relief agencies quickly mobilized to help, but they face logistical challenges such as frigid weather and security hazards in a region that has suffered from years of local conflict and civil war.

Mooij says after making sure staff was accounted for, World Vision quickly began setting up shelters and clinics and bringing water and supplies to the displaced. Because of border restrictions and an ongoing civil war, Syrian survivors can’t safely leave the quake zone, but so far, World Vision can bring in aid.

Still, distributing that aid, including truckloads of blankets from local churches, is difficult in both countries because of damaged roads, winter weather, and the vast numbers of now homeless people.

Rescuers carry a body found in the rubble in Adana, Turkey.

Rescuers carry a body found in the rubble in Adana, Turkey. Can Erok/AFP via Getty Images

Thousands of structures collapsed in the earthquake, trapping victims under slabs of concrete and mangled rebar. Freezing temperatures hampered civilians and rescue workers who clawed through mountains of rubble searching for survivors, listening as buried loved ones screamed for help and cheering when they pulled one to safety. Cell phone signals from beneath the wreckage guided workers to some victims.

Turkey sits on one of the world’s most active earthquake zones. In 1939, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck eastern Turkey, killing more than 30,000 people. In 1999, more than 17,000 people died after a 7.4 magnitude quake struck near the northwestern city of Izmit.

This month’s temblor rumbled through heavily populated areas of Turkey with aged high rises. About 2 million people reside in the city of Gaziantep, some 20 miles from the quake’s epicenter. The destruction also hit Gaziantep Castle, a 2,000-year-old hilltop structure built during the Roman Empire. Bricks from the castle’s walls collapsed into the streets.

In the Turkish city of Iskenderun, falling buildings reportedly killed Iskenderun Bible Church Pastor Hakan Konur and his wife, Pola. Rescuers pulled their 10-year-old son alive from the rubble six hours later. Nearby evangelical and Orthodox churches were among those destroyed.

The quakes struck an area suffering from more than 11 years of Syrian civil war, which has driven 3.5 million fleeing refugees into Turkey. Some 4.1 million civilians in the stricken region were already getting UN humanitarian aid, and millions more are suffering under the country’s economic crisis.

In Syria, with Russian-backed government forces battling rebel groups, millions of Syrians displaced by years of fighting had taken refuge in camps and in buildings already unstable from military bombardments.

The World Food Program in January warned that hunger in Syria is at a 12-year high. Amid a cold winter, aid groups say Syrians are burning plastic bags and manure to stay warm. A cholera outbreak in the country has infected more than 80,000 people.

Snow covers the rubble in Malatya, Turkey.

Snow covers the rubble in Malatya, Turkey. Hakan Akgun/DIA/Getty Images

All those challenges have ground down the local population and also create additional complications for relief organizations trying to mobilize aid. Groups including Samaritan’s Purse and World Relief are assessing damage and numbers of displaced Turks and Syrians and strategizing how to provide long-term help. Countries around the world have sent military and civilian teams to set up tents and clinics.

Syria’s rebel-held northwest region largely depends on food, medicine, and other aid from a single cross-border corridor with Turkey. It wasn’t immediately clear if Syria would open additional crossings to allow aid to flow into the region. Bassam Sabbagh, Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations, said his government would coordinate aid deliveries “to all Syrians in all territory of Syria.”

Even as rescuers searched for survivors, snow fell on collapsed buildings, compounding local miseries. A director with SAT-7, a Middle East Christian satellite TV station in Turkey, summed up the pleas of many: “We need prayer for emergency workers and citizens, and healing for our country from this trauma.”

WORLD updated this story on Feb. 12 with the latest casualty figures.

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