Syria: From the jaws of death to the embrace of fate

A White Helmet rescuer comforts a Syrian man who lost his family in the earthquake. Picture by Baynana, used with permission.

This piece by Ayham Al Sati was first published by Baynana, an Arabic media platform, on February 10, 2023. An edited version is republished here, under a content-sharing agreement.

Can we bid death farewell? It cannot hear us, nor does it respond. It refuses to leave us, following wherever we go. We may flee to safer regions and countries, but safety remains elusive.

Deathly tremors pierced the calm and shook with fury on the night of February 6, in Turkey. Buildings crumbled, trapping residents inside them in the blink of an eye. The earthquake's fury then spread to Syria, wreaking havoc in Latakia, Tartus, Hama, Aleppo, and the northwestern region.

Death is all too familiar in Syrian towns and cities where oppression reigns, a constant companion during the 11-year war. Fear and destruction are bitter flavors that many people have tasted. Collapsed buildings and anguished cries have become an all-too-familiar soundtrack, while the grim wait for bodies to be recovered from the rubble has become routine. The taste of death is bitter, even if its flavors change.

In the south of Turkey, Ahmed Saad Eldin Alsalamat, his wife Sahab Riyadh Abou Hosainy, and their daughters Dima and Bana were buried beneath the rubble. Their names and titles resonate with me; a family of four just like my family, hailing from my hometown of Tasil, located in Syria's southern region of Daraa. They had fled the long Syrian death seeking refuge in Turkey, only to find death awaiting them there. There are thousands upon thousands of names like theirs.  People who found their final resting place in Turkey and Syria.

Ahmed and Sahab and their two lovely daughters, both less than six years old, were discovered hugging under the rubble of their asylum house. In life, they had clung to each other for years, determined to face death only while in each other's embrace. After escaping the bitter grasp of death in their own country, they endured the bitterness of displacement and found refuge in a foreign land, only to ultimately succumb to death there.

The earthquake struck northwest Syria, a region referred to as areas “outside of state control” by Russia and Syria, but we like to call them the areas free of dictatorial control. We frequently receive reports of dozens of people being killed at the hands of Russian and Syrian airstrikes. People there have grown weary of the daily death, the constant stream of destruction, and the inevitable flight to overcrowded camps.

Today these regions in northwest Syria are in the grip of a real humanitarian crisis. According to the United Nations, 14.6 million people in the area were in dire need of assistance because of the relentless siege and bombardment they had endured, even before the earthquake struck. Today, they move from displacement to displacement, from one camp to the next, and from one pile of rubble to another.

The situation there is nothing short of tragic, with an extremely vulnerable medical sector and a lack of emergency response capabilities. The only hope for those trapped under the rubble is the Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, who declared the area a disaster zone on the first day of the earthquake. Unfortunately, the sheer scale of the disaster has overwhelmed the limited capacity of these dedicated volunteers. The situation remains dire with a shortage of necessary equipment and machinery and the lack of a clear action plan.

The rescue teams call for those who are trapped beneath the rubble of their homes, “Please respond; has anyone among you survived?”

Many friends and colleagues in these devastated areas tell us that the sounds of people trapped under the rubble have gone silent as rescue operations have been delayed. We Syrians are accustomed to yelling and pleading for help without being heard.

Syrians always die silently, with little help or aid from anyone. Sometimes under bombardment, sometimes under torture in prisons, and other times in perilous journeys across seas and oceans in search of safety. These bereaved people have waited 11 years for the world to ring the bell to end the war. Instead, the drums of war continue to beat in other countries, rather than being silenced.

In the wake of the earthquake, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that aid poured in from 45 nations. But mere kilometers away, in northwest Syria, no such aid arrived, and the people were left to confront their destiny and the looming threat of death in the earthquake's aftermath.

Those who survived are outside their homes, children and women and others left in the streets to brave the stormy weather since the earthquake. Their houses now rubble, or cracked, fear grips their hearts, no aid or relief in sight, even preliminary assistance, their lives, turned upside down.

The children, bewildered, struggle to understand; they speculate among themselves: “Will the earthquake strike again?”

As of the time of writing, the Syrian regime's Ministry of Health has reported a death toll of over 1,347, with over 2,300 injured, in the provinces of Halab, Latakia, Tartus, and Hama. However, it must be noted that these figures are not final.

Meanwhile, in the northwest of Syria, the White Helmets organization has recorded more than 2,037 fatalities and over 3,000 injuries, with the number likely to increase as hundreds of families remain trapped beneath the rubble.

The cries and screams of the Syrian people ring out loud this time, and the natural disaster appears to be more severe than the man-made ones they have endured. Yet the question still remains: will anyone respond to our calls for help, or will our plight fall on deaf ears once more, leaving us to annoy the world with our suffering and screaming until we are forgotten in a day or two?

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