When the earthquake struck Turkey and Syria in February 2023, Alessio Paduano was there on the ground, during a disaster that was essentially a cross-border catastrophe in a geopolitically sensitive region. He brought back these powerful, masterfully taken photographs which not only reveal the earthquake’s impact but also capture the rescue workers’ efforts and the distress of survivors. The result is that we get to look back at events now absent from the media but whose shockwaves are still felt today – albeit it metaphorically, although who knows when the earth might start shaking again. After all, keeping memories alive is the purpose of photography too.
Photos and captions:
© Alessio Paduano
Text by Sophie Alary
On 6 February 2023, a series of earthquakes – measuring a magnitude of 7.8 on the Richter scale – struck southeast Turkey and northwest Syria close to the Turkish border. Spreading panic through local populations, over 10,000 aftershocks were recorded in the weeks that followed the earthquake by Turkey’s Disaster Management Authority (AFAD).
A few days after the first earthquake, Alessio Paduano took these photographs in several Turkish towns and at the border crossing between Cilvegözü – Bab al- Hawa. They show the distress and loneliness of those who fortunately survived but likely lost loved ones to the disaster. The shots also help us grasp the extent of the destruction and the amount of vital effort made by civilians who instinctively swung into action to rescue victims buried beneath the rubble.
A heavy toll in a region undermined by geopolitical tensions
Earthquakes are frequent in this region of the world, but this one’s toll was especially high: at least 57,000 deaths, tens of thousands of people wounded, millions of people losing their homes, whole towns devastated and populations who lost everything. The UN (United Nations) believes that over 9 million people in Turkey and at least 8.8 million people in Syria were directly affected by the earthquake and its aftershocks. Angela Kearney, a UNICEF representative in Syria, said: “This is the worst natural disaster ever observed [in the region], not only in terms of emotional impact but in terms of displacement of people too.”
The situation is as dramatic as it is unprecedented: the earthquake struck a region that was already devastated by twelve years of conflict in Syria that have immersed the country in a serious humanitarian crisis. Ninety percent of the population live below the poverty line, and civilian and social infrastructure has been practically destroyed. The conflict has also displaced people within the country and beyond it: four million Syrian refugees live in Turkey – half of them in regions affected by the earthquake and its aftershocks.
Around 200 Syrian hospitals have been damaged and lack resources, which deprives not just the earthquake’s victims but also long-term patients of the vital care that they need. An under-control cholera epidemic has broken out again, not surprising since almost all the already poor infrastructure for supplying and sanitising water has been contaminated in the regions affected. A sharp rise in prices and an absence of income have made millions of people completely dependent on receiving food supplies. Living conditions in camps for displaced people are breeding grounds for cholera outbreaks and cannot protect the most vulnerable, including women and children.
The earthquake and its aftershocks have pushed up the cost of rebuilding Syria, already standing at 900 billion dollars after a decade of war. A recent report from the World BankWorld Bank, Syria earthquake 2023. Rapid damage and needs assessment, March 2023, https://documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/099093003162314369/pdf/P1721710e2b4a60b40a5940f0793f8a0d24.pdf put at 7.9 billion dollars the cost of the earthquake’s material damage in the devastated regions.
As regards Turkey, seventeen of the country’s provinces have been affected by the earthquake and its aftershocks, and around three million people have been displaced, most of them now housed in relief camps of tents and shipping containers.
The Turkish government estimates that over half a million buildings have been damaged, and the disaster has made most roads unusable, which further hampers access to affected communities in isolated villages. More than three months after the earthquake, people that were given shelter are still dependent on aid for food, hygiene, health and protection. The catastrophe has highlighted the Turkish government’s failings in the development of resilient urban areas that fully factors in the risk of earthquakes. The region hit by the earthquake and its aftershocks is also one of Turkey’s most fertile areas of land: according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, it represents 15% of the country’s GDP and over 20% of its food production. A catastrophe such as this is a crushing blow to the region’s natural resources and the hard work of the men and women who toil the land.
And things have gone from bad to worse: torrential rain in late March and early April damaged the devastated areas, including camps of displaced people, and on 11 April further aftershocks brought back harrowing memories of the first earthquake.
An unprecedented logistical and humanitarian challenge
From the very first days that followed the earthquake, the catastrophe posed a double trial to the rescue teams – a humanitarian and logistical challenge in harsh weather conditions, a combination of sub-zero temperatures and continuous rain. Yet a sharp difference soon emerged between Turkey and Syria: “There was a stark contrast between the two countries in terms of the intensity and volume of aid deployed”, said Hakim Khaldi of Médecins Sans Frontières.Lou Chabani, « Après la catastrophe, le difficile déploiement de l’aide humanitaire en Syrie et en Turquie », National Geographic, 20 mars 2023, … Continue reading In Turkey, the State was slow to react: it clearly had no emergency plan for an earthquake of this scale. Yet under AFAD’s supervision, rescue teams from overseas quickly started to help local organisations. At the end of March, the Turkish embassy in France announced that Turkey had received offers of support from 103 countries and had coordinated the arrival of over 11,000 rescue workers from ninety countries.
In Syria, international aid first came from Arab countries, namely those in the Persian Gulf and North Africa, but also from Iran and Russia. This aid arrived in Damascus and was then forwarded to the regions under governmental control (Aleppo, Latakia and Hama). But aid took a long time to reach regions held by different rebel groups, like Afrin, Jindires and Idlib, which were particularly disaster-stricken. In this part of northwest Syria, 4.1 million people are already paying a heavy price for twelve years of civil war and rely on emergency humanitarian aid – 2.7 million of them are displaced people, mostly grouped in camps.
Among the humanitarian organisations on the ground before the catastrophe struck, many civilian groups of Syrian volunteers like the White Helmets were the first to swing into action. Yet their efforts were soon hindered by a lack of equipment. Despite an absence of coordination and difficulties in gaining access to places, the international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that were already on site were able to provide support for the populations in devastated regions. These NGOs included Médecins Sans Frontières, Doctors of the World, Action Against Hunger, Care, Handicap International – Humanity & Inclusion, and Solidarités International.
The scale of the disaster has been combined with a tense geopolitical situation in the region that has made humanitarian operations extremely challenging. The only crossing point that the United Nations can use between Turkey and northwest Syria is Bab al-Hawa and it reopened on 7 February, but the first UN convoys only arrived in Syria days later. Before the disaster hit, this border crossing was one of the sticking points in tensions between Western powers, Bashar al-Assad and his ally Russia: the latter two consider these border crossings a violation of Syrian sovereignty. On 13 February, the Syrian head of state agreed to the temporary reopening of two other border crossings to make it easier for UN workers to get to the region and for food and equipment to be sent there. Yet this authorisation is due to expire mid-August 2023, and UN agencies are already worrying that it might not be renewed as they have been criticised since the beginning of the earthquake for not mobilising enough resources to deal with the scale of the disaster: “We have seen many heroic acts to help victims by the Syrians themselves, but we also witnessed a complete failure by the government and the international community, including the UN, to rapidly direct urgent life-saving aid to northwest Syria,” said the Commission of Inquiry mandated by the United Nations Human Rights Council, on 13 March.
Both in Turkey and Syria, NGOs face the excessive centralisation of humanitarian aid. It takes a long time to receive authorisations and the coordination role usually given to the UN is undermined. In Syria, most aid is provided under the supervision of the Syrian Red Crescent with support from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. NGOs and UN agencies have to cooperate with the powerful Syria Trust for Development – an NGO headed by President al-Assad’s wife. “Around a third of Syria’s GDP comes from embezzled humanitarian aid,” said the political scientist Manon-Nour Tannous recently at a conference at the iReMMO.Institut de Recherche et d’Études Méditerranée Moyen-Orient : workshop on the Syrian conflict, 13 May 2023 (in French), https://iremmo.org/formations/le-conflit-syrien-6
For the time being, it is difficult to draw up an overall assessment – even a provisional one – of the humanitarian aid provided to the two countries. At a conference in Brussels on 20 March, international donors committed to providing seven billion euros in aid – well below the first calls for donations from the global organisations and States concerned. In March, the UN said it was pleased with this conference’s outcome. Yet it also called for the players involved not to politicise humanitarian aid.
Indeed, economic sanctions against Bashar al-Assad’s regime – especially those initiated by the European Union (EU), the United States and Canada – have been in force since 2011. Even though these sanctions have been slightly loosened since the disaster struck to speed up the roll-out of aid, they make it complicated to send humanitarian aid to this country where war has killed over 306,000 civilians, according to a report from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights published in June 2022. Despite these measures, EU countries remain the leading providers of humanitarian aid in the Syrian crisis, 27.4 million euros having been given since 2011.
In both Turkey and Syria, efforts are currently focusing on resettling refugees and displaced people. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, eight million people across the two countries have been left without a home since the earthquake hit. National and international NGOs are worrying about the slow pace at which operations are receiving funding at a time when the needs of local populations are still plentiful and persistent and geopolitical affairs are undermining recovery efforts. Following the re-election of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey will have to contend with galloping inflation and will need to overhaul its economy and re-establish its democratic base. As regards Syria, the country is seeking recovery with help from the international community, and it has just re-joined the Arab League. But, as Marc Schakal, the head of the Syria programme at Médecins Sans Frontières, explained to Agence France-Presse: “The country remains a grey area from a legal and diplomatic perspective.”
These transitions will determine the long-term aid needed for the millions of affected people, who will continue to suffer from the trauma caused by this catastrophe, beyond any material shortages or physical wounds.
Translated from the French by Thomas Young