Toll from Turkey-Syria quake tops 34,000; U.N. says it ‘failed’ Syria

White Helmets/Handout via REUTERS
A White Helmet volunteer carries a toy, in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake, in Harem, Idlib, Syria February 10, 2023.

ISLAHIYE, Turkey – It had been nearly a week since a pair of powerful earthquakes shattered this town in southern Turkey, and families with missing loved ones were out again – as they had been each day before – to follow the painstaking search for survivors.

Men and women watched rescue workers from the rooftops, shouting out advice as teams drilled cautiously through unexcavated rooms. “That’s his bedroom right in there,” one man cried out. “It’s that one.”

It took workers hours to reach the man in question, cutting rebar away from his large body frame.

Then they rolled him into a black body bag.

It was a scene repeated across southern Turkey and northwest Syria on Sunday, where the death toll from the quakes eclipsed 34,000 people, as hopes waned that more survivors might be pulled from the rubble and the United Nations said aid efforts had “failed” the people of northwest Syria.

Nearly a week after the Feb. 6 temblors, rescue efforts in several areas shifted to recovery missions. More than 1.1 million people were displaced in Turkey. An untold number lay buried under the rubble. In Syria, a scarcity of excavators left people desperately digging for loved ones on their own.

Across quake-destroyed areas, the enormity of the needs was hard to comprehend.

“We have not seen suffering and devastation of this scale in over a decade,” Johan Mooij, the response director for World Vision Syria, said in a statement. “The impact is so enormous . . . it could take a generation for survivors to recover.”

More than 29,600 people in Turkey and 4,500 in Syria have been killed in the quakes, officials in the countries said. The numbers, they warned, would almost certainly rise.

Amid the devastation, anger continued to mount over the gulf in aid between Turkey, where tons of relief has poured in, and rebel-held northwest Syria, where the response has lagged and people – many already displaced by a brutal civil war – have been mostly left to manage the crisis alone.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has restricted access to the northwest, which is under the control of armed opposition groups. With the backing of allies such as Russia and China at the U.N. Security Council, he has periodically blocked the delivery of humanitarian aid there in the past.

U.N. officials have remained mostly quiet on the political machinations that have obstructed the provision of humanitarian assistance, a silence that critics charge is intended to allow them to maintain access to Damascus.

They have cited damaged roads and security concerns as factors complicating the delivery of aid to Syria’s northwest. But on a visit Sunday to Bab al-Hawa, the one open aid corridor on the Turkey-Syria border, Martin Griffiths, the U.N.’s emergency relief coordinator, admitted errors.

“We have so far failed the people in north-west Syria,” Griffiths said in a tweet. “They rightly feel abandoned. Looking for international help that hasn’t arrived. My duty and our obligation is to correct this failure as fast as we can. That’s my focus now.”

For some, the admission came as too little, too late.

Raed Al Saleh, the head of the Syrian Civil Defense, whose volunteers are known as the White Helmets, said in a tweet that he appreciated the “apology for the shortcomings & mistakes.” But he demanded that more cross-border aid routes be opened without U.N. Security Council approval.

“Waiting for U.N. Security Council authorization to reopen more border crossings into the northwest is completely misguided,” he said in a statement. “There can be no more delays. . . . Failing to escalate medical aid deliveries rapidly will leave the U.N. with more blood on its hands.”

Meanwhile, Dan Stoenescu, the European Union’s chargé d’affaires to Syria, urged member states to ensure that sanctions against the Syrian government “do not impede” aid delivery. He told Reuters that the bloc would seek assurances that aid is not diverted only to Assad loyalists.

In Turkey, authorities were expanding their probe into contractors and others who they say could bear responsibility for structure collapses in the quakes, as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government faced mounting criticism over years of alleged failure to enforce building codes as well as its immediate response to the current disaster.

Bekir Bozdag, the country’s justice minister, said prosecutors in 10 provinces have been working “quite intensively” to probe possible negligence or wrongdoing in building construction. He said there are more than 130 suspects.

Two contractors responsible for collapsed buildings in Adiyaman were detained Sunday at Istanbul Airport, local media reported. Two others were arrested in the province of Gaziantep for allegedly cutting down columns to make room in a building that collapsed, state-run Anadolu Agency said.

“Further suspects will be identified,” Bozdag said at a news conference Sunday. “Please rest assured that investigations are carried out as per the rule of law. Those who were negligent will be identified.”

He also said Turkish authorities are investigating several dozen incidents of looting and theft.

“Unfortunately, some people have exploited people’s pain,” Bozdag said.

Though the chances of survival for those who remained trapped under the rubble were falling by the hour, rescue efforts continued in some areas. Local media reported that there had been a few rescues, including of a 10-year-old girl who spent 159 hours trapped under the rubble in Gaziantep.

In Islahiye, like many other towns and villages, the residents mostly live outside now. They said that municipal authorities had banned them from entering buildings at risk of collapse. So, instead, they were camped out in tents, and setting trash and kindling alight to keep warm.

“It’s winter and yet we cannot go inside the houses,” said Ahmet Kurt, a local headmaster. “People are afraid, they’re shocked. You can’t expect people to stay here.”

Kurt had joined the vigil of families outside another collapsed building. He said his elder sister, Ozgul, was believed to be buried beneath another house nearby.

He didn’t think she was alive, but he couldn’t be sure.

“Look around you; we’re all waiting,” Kurt said. “It’s like we’re all waiting for our elder sisters.”