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‘Like The End Of Days’: Shellshocked Survivors Join Hunt For Missing In Turkey-Syria Earthquake

“There is a family I know under the rubble,” Omer El Cuneyd said, standing amid the chaos of the shattered city of Sanliurfa.

“Until 11am or noon, my friend was still answering the phone. But she no longer answers. She is down there. I think her battery ran out,” he said, hoping against hope, for a miracle.

On the road, a stream of cars crawled north out of the city, taking traumatised residents away from the scene of Turkey’s most powerful earthquake in decades.

Nearby, a distraught family walked in the freezing rain, their belongings piled into a pram, look for a shelter to spend the night in.

Sanliurfa, an historic, once-bustling city in southeastern Turkey, was devastated by the series of massive earthquakes that struck southern Turkey early on Monday morning, claiming more than 4,300 lives across the mostly Kurdish regions of the country and in neighbouring Syria.

The disaster felled thousands of buildings across the two countries, injuring tens of thousands, and leaving an unknown number trapped under debris.

The sheer scale of the disaster appears overwhelming.

On one of Sanliurfa’s main boulevards, dozens of rescuers searched for survivors among the remains of what was once a seven-storey building, reduced in an instant to mounds of dirt and debris.

Crews try to reach a woman under the rubble of a collapsed building in Sanliurfa. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty ImagesAt least 30 people are known to have died in this province alone, where 200 buildings crumbled from the 7.8-magnitude pre-dawn quake, a second, 7.7-magnitude tremor, and incessant waves of aftershocks.

In front of Omer El Cuneyd lay the gutted remains of a sofa, a chair with splintered metal legs, and torn curtains, signs of a quiet, unassuming life suddenly shattered.

Around him, dozens of people tried to lift massive slabs of concrete debris, urgently listening for hints of life. The rescuers took regular silent pauses, peering into the rubble, filled with a mixture of exhaustion, anguish and hope.

Omer said he and his friends would stay at the site of the collapsed building all night, regardless of the snow, the rain and their exhaustion. “I have to,” he said.

‘Can anyone hear me?’

In Adana, more than 350 kilometres west, rescue workers and civilians spent Monday passing chunks of concrete and household goods across mountains of rubble, moving tons of wreckage by hand in a desperate search for survivors.

“Can anyone hear me?” rescuers shouted into the rubble.

Turkey’s Kahramanmaras province was the epicentre of the quake.

About 20 people, some in emergency rescue jackets, used power saws to carve out space that would let any survivors climb out or be rescued. Later, excavators joined the efforts as bright spotlights illuminated the wreckage.

Ruined residential buildings in the Pazarcık district of Kahramanmaras in Turkey. Photograph: Dia Images/Getty ImagesDozens crouched to look below a massive sheet of concrete propped at an angle by steel bars. They crawled in and out, trying to reach survivors. Excavating equipment dug through the rubble below. Multi-storey buildings continued to collapse hours after the initial quakes.

Elsewhere in the province, rescuers pulled two children alive from the rubble. One lay on a stretcher on the snowy ground. Rescuers quieted the throngs of people trying to help so they could hear survivors calling for help and locate them.

Across Turkey and Syria, thousands of search-and-rescue personnel, firefighters, medics, soldiers and civilians worked to find and rescue survivors.

In Idlib, in northwestern Syria, journalist Mohamad Kazmooz told the Guardian he fled with his family in the pre-dawn darkness, as the quake rocked the city.

“We watched a building come down with everyone inside, it had previously been subject to bombing during the civil war, by Russian and Syrian government forces.

“Everyone around us spilled out onto the streets in fear and panic, they came out only with the clothes on their backs, they left their homes and belongings behind.”

He spent 12 hours, alongside members of Syria’s White Helmets humanitarian volunteer organisation, helping to remove the bodies of men, women and children from the collapsed buildings of his neighbourhood.

The quake’s aftermath, he said, “felt like the end of days”.

Despite Syria’s biting, bitter winter, he estimates 80% of the population of Idlib are too scared to return to their homes, fearful they will collapse from damage already sustained, or be brought down by further aftershocks.

“My family and I are staying at a farm, sleeping under olive trees, out of fear of the buildings collapsing. Everyone is on the street, no one around me has been able to return home to sleep.”

He said his city, scarred by years of war, drought, and widespread hunger, simply cannot cope with this latest catastrophe.

Rescuers search for survivors trapped under the rubble in the city of Sarmada, north of Idlib, in Syria. Photograph: EyePress News/REX/Shutterstock“Our services are already very weakened, including health and emergency services, they are stretched beyond their capacity at this point. They are unable to keep up with the number of dead and injured, and the breadth of this disaster.

“Most hospitals and medical centres have announced that they can no longer accept more patients, due to the overwhelming number of dead and injured.”

In the border town of Jindires, Ali Batel, begged for help from the ruins of his former village.

“My family, my children, are still under the rubble. There is no one to save them, there are no support workers, there is no support or communication, there is nothing.

“We hear noises, voices here and there, but most of the time, nothing. There is no one to help save them, there is no support. Where are the countries of the world? Why have they not come to help us? A disaster has befallen us.”

Osama Abdel Hamid, another survivor in Syria, said his family was sleeping when the shaking began.

“The walls collapsed over us, but my son was able to get out,” he said.

“He started screaming and people gathered around, knowing there were survivors, and they pulled us out from under the rubble.”

Residents lifted the rubble of their former homes and unearthed the family.

Despite the frantic, fatigued efforts of rescuers, the death toll will grow higher and higher.

In one scene that symbolised the suffering gripping the region, a man held a dead girl in his arms beside a two-story collapsed concrete building as he walked away from the debris.

He and a woman wrapped the girl’s body in a large blanket and set her on a floor under cover to protect her from the rain.

With Agence France-Presse and Associated Press

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