Rescue crews in Turkey and Syria worked Tuesday to find survivors buried in the rubble of buildings toppled by powerful earthquakes that struck the region on Monday and left more than 4,800 people dead.
After a night in which temperatures fell close to freezing, Tuesday brought more quakes with more than 20 of magnitude-4.0 or greater shaking the area along the border between the two countries.
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus expressed support for the people of Turkey and Syria “in this moment of unspeakable grief,” and said the casualty figures do not capture “the grief and loss being experienced by families right now who have lost a mother, a father, a daughter, a son beneath the rubble — or who don’t know whether their loved ones are alive or dead.”
Speaking at a WHO meeting in Geneva, Tedros said the organization is sending charter flights to both countries with medical supplies and that it will work to support them as they recover and rebuild.
“This is a moment when we must come together in solidarity, as one humanity, to save lives and alleviate the suffering of people who have already suffered so much,” he said.
Turkey’s emergency disaster management agency said it was conducting operations by road and by air to get supplies and crews to areas affected by the earthquakes. Those efforts were being backed by a growing number of other governments and aid agencies that have sent teams and resources to the region.
On a traffic-jammed, snowy road between the cities of Kırşehir and Kayseri, VOA Turkish spoke with people who were on their way to the affected area with aid.
The epicenter of Monday’s pre-dawn earthquake was near Gaziantep, close to the Turkey-Syria border, and it was followed by a separate magnitude 7.5 earthquake about 100 kilometers north in the early afternoon.
Officials in Turkey said Tuesday at least 3,419 people were killed with more than 15,000 injured. They said more than 7,800 people had been rescued and that at least 6,200 buildings had collapsed. Syria reported at least 1,602 deaths and about 3,500 injuries, according to figures from the Damascus government and rescue groups.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared seven days of national mourning.
Awale Ahmed Darfa, a Somali student in Gaziantep at the epicenter, told VOA Somali, “A large earthquake hit while we were asleep … The situation turned critical very quickly. We heard screams, cries and people running. The buildings were shaking as if they were shaken by Jinn [evil spirits]. Everyone ran to wherever they felt they would be safe.”
The student added, “We are now outside since we left our homes around 4 a.m. There is a problem being outside — it is rainy, cold, windy, and we are not wearing protective clothing. Outside, everyone is wearing what they were wearing [while] asleep. Some people do not have shoes. They told us we could not go back to the buildings because of the fear [of aftershocks]. That is the disaster here.”
The earthquake struck a region enveloped on both sides of the border by more than a decade of civil war in Syria. On the Syrian side, the swath affected is divided between government-held territory and the country’s last opposition-held enclave, which is surrounded by Russian-backed government forces. Turkey, meanwhile, is home to millions of refugees from the conflict.
The opposition-held regions in Syria are packed with about 4 million people displaced from other parts of the country by the fighting. Many of them live in buildings that are already damaged from past bombardments. On Monday, hundreds of families remained trapped in rubble, an opposition emergency organization, the White Helmets, said in a statement.
Strained health facilities and hospitals were quickly filled with the injured, rescue workers said. Others had to be emptied, including a maternity hospital, according to the SAMS medical organization.
Monday’s quake destroyed the historic Gaziantep Castle and many other historic buildings in the area.
In the Turkish city of Mersin, resident Nurhan Kiral told VOA’s Turkish Service that the earthquake lasted about a minute.
“We woke up with the tremor and got out of the bed. Rubble fell from the chimney. Rubble fell from the empty space between the buildings. It was terrifying,” Kiral said.
Residents in Turkey’s western city of Izmir organized a clothing donation campaign to help the earthquake victims.
Emre Demirpolat told VOA’s Turkish Service, “We brought blankets and heaters. We need to be united … In such bad times, we must support each other. While we can’t stay outside for 10 minutes in this cold, people there, shudder to think about the loss of their homes and when they will get to go to a warm place.”
In other parts of Turkey, residents struggled to find transportation to travel to the earthquake-stricken area to see their relatives and loved ones.
Serdar Özdemir, an Ankara resident, told VOA’s Turkish Service he was finally able to get a bus ticket to go to the city Malatya, after not being able to find a car rental.
“I can’t rent a car. There’s no way to go. I have been looking for a car here for hours.”
Turkey is in one of the world’s most active earthquake zones.
In 1999, more than 17,000 people were killed when a 7.4 magnitude earthquake — the worst to hit Turkey in decades — struck near Duzce, in the northwest of the country.
In October 2022, a magnitude 7.0 quake hit the Aegean Sea, killing 116 people and injuring more than 1,000. All but two of the victims were in Izmir, Turkey.