MSF staff in Syria going through the earthquake: “I’m still shocked. I can’t come to terms with what happened”

“I’m Samar from Eastern Ghouta. I’m the MSF health promotion supervisor in northwest Syria. 

When the first quake occurred, I was home in A’zaz with my husband, son, and daughter. We live on the second floor. We were asleep when the earthquake happened. My husband felt it and woke me up. I carried my daughter, and my husband carried my son. We ran out of the house in our pyjamas, barefoot and terrified. It felt like doomsday. People were crammed and running in crowds. We could no longer feel anything other than fear, terror, shivering, and rain. My children were shaking in front of me. We had no clue what needed to be done. Should we move away from the buildings or head towards the lands? We had to make sure our relatives were safe, but our building was toppling and swaying before us – we felt so many things.

People were leaving the buildings and riding their cars away from buildings. They all headed towards open lands. We didn’t see the buildings falling. They were shaking and balconies were falling on the cars and destroying them. The scene was horrible: people were running away from the buildings while holding on to their children. 

We ran away empty-handed. I only wore the prayer robe after leaving the house. I couldn’t manage to wear it at home. Then, we remembered that we had a car, so my husband went to get it once the shocks subsided to shelter us from the rain. He also brought coats for us and the kids. We drove away and waited. We kept hearing about aftershocks occurring until dawn. At dawn, my family then called me from Damascus asking if something had happened to us. As for my uncle’s family, they passed away. My family was asking me about my uncle’s family. Imagine that my family is far away from the earthquake and they knew before us that they passed away.

I didn't know. The internet connection and the electricity went out. We could hardly use the networks to check up on the people we know. We didn't find out until around 9 AM. I told my husband that we must go to Jindires, the most affected area, along with the areas in Atarib and the outskirts of Idlib. I told him that we had to go there because a lot of people died. All the people from my hometown live there. We got ready with the kids and left within 15 minutes. We couldn’t wait much longer since we didn't know what might happen. We had to change our clothes, which were stained by the rain and dirt. We then went to Jindires. It was horrific. All the buildings collapsed. From the outskirts of the city, not a single building was spared. People were under the rubble. Everyone is dead.

Witnessing this horrific scene, it was impossible to think that anyone would make it out of the buildings. We went to my uncle’s house. We could barely get there because of the rubble. My nephew’s daughter, her sister, their sisters-in-law, our relatives, were all killed. The ones who survived were shocked and did not understand what was happening. We lived in a further region that was not as affected. However, we were terrified, so I can’t imagine how the people who lived through the destruction felt. A mother lost consciousness after losing her daughter. She lost her mind. Then, we felt another shock, I saw the building in front of us shaking and almost falling. I begged them to get away from the buildings. We all got into the car and drove away, where there were tents and people we knew. We sat in a tent in the middle of heavy rain and mud, but we and our children had to be safe.

Many parents were burying their children. Others were under the rubble. No family was spared. Every family lost one or several loved ones. It’s taking time to get people out. The machineries were very few. We only saw individual efforts and initiatives. My husband rushed to help the civil defence to save people from under the rubble. He goes there every day. Our friends are also helping. The [MSF] health team that I supervise is also helping in Jindires. Everyone has relatives there. Even if they don’t, they go to help, as no one else is helping clear the rubble. The machineries are very limited in the north. They can’t cover Jindires, Aleppo, Atarib, Maharem and Termanin, and other regions.

We returned at 2 o’clock from Jindires to Afrin, where we stayed at a relative’s house that is on the ground floor. My husband goes to Jindires every day. We plan to go back to A’zaz today. We don’t know what will happen exactly.

The [MSF] team coordinated with the logistics team to distribute tents and clothes. They prepared them and went to Jindires for distribution. Essential kits were distributed to the people in Jindires. The team worked until late at night. I was not able to help or contribute to their work, as I’m alone with the kids, and far away from home. 

I’m still shocked. I can’t come to terms with what happened. I feel that the disaster is still ongoing. I can’t bring myself to go back home. My husband is trying to convince me since a lot of people already returned, but I don’t have the courage. We went to the hospital yesterday. My husband's friend's family all died except for one girl. We visited her in the hospital. She told us how they gathered in one place. She headed to the door with her brother. Their younger sister followed them. She told me how the roof fell on top of her father, killing him; how her father said his last words and passed away. “When the rubble fell, my sister landed underneath me. She suffocated because of me,” she cried. “My sister Tala choked because of me. She was screaming at me to get away from her, but I couldn't. The rubble was on top of me.” The rubble fell her brother’s leg amputating it. The girl's legs were broken. I had to gather my strength and see the suffering of people.

The needs are immense. All people care about now is saving people from under the rubble. Bulldozers and heavy machinery are desperately needed to save people, otherwise it won’t be possible. It's very cold and rainy. People have lost their clothes and money and cannot buy clothes, heaters or find shelters. Homes have been destroyed and families have moved to mosques, schools, and shelters. Organisations are working on the ground, but the needs are enormous. If no intervention takes place, the needs cannot be met.

A local organisation is providing shelter and tents. Benefactors and residents collect and send food, mattresses, blankets, and heating materials. Most efforts being made are local and individual. I only saw Doctors Without Borders distributing kits. I don't know if other international organisations are working in the region as well. Doctors Without Borders was distributing kits and Shafak was providing shelter. As for the rest of the support is being provided by individuals through personal efforts. People are helping each other. Some collect donations from abroad. These are individual initiatives; states did not intervene. 

After their homes are destroyed, some people go to their relatives’ houses. Those who did not have relatives took refuge in tents or were received by other people. On the first day, some people received us and gave us food. People are hosted in tents away from buildings, or in single-storey buildings. 

I hope that the response will be intensified, and that people are rescued from under the rubble, and those dead to be buried. Any action must be taken, as the area is completely demolished. We may find one or two standing building, but they are badly damaged and about to collapse.”