As It Happens

'What about us?' Syrians hit by earthquake say the world has abandoned them

An activist in the rebel-held enclave says hundreds of people are trapped under the rubble, and nobody is coming to help them.

Former teacher living in rebel-held enclave says hundreds are buried, and nobody is helping

A distressed looking man in a red hoodie looks to one side. Behind him are piles of stone and rubble.
Abdulkafi Alhamdo, a teacher-turned-activist who lives in rebel-held northern Syria, says nobody has come to help after an earthquake in Turkey levelled building and homes in his already war-torn community. (Submitted by Abdulkafi Alhamdo)

When the ground started shaking northern Syria on Monday, Abdulkafi Alhamdo's seven-year-old daughter looked up at him and asked if they were being bombed.

The family lives outside Aleppo in one of the last opposition-held communities in Syria's long and bloody civil war. Attacks from Bashar al-Assad's Syrian regime and its Russian allies are not unheard of. 

"When the tremors first appeared to happen, she told me, 'Dad, is this Assad and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin?' Alhamdo, a teacher-turned-activist, told As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

"I said at the beginning, 'It might be.' But when it got longer and stronger, I told her, 'No, this time it's not."

Quake hits country divided by war

It was, in fact, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake. Its epicentre was in Gaziantep, Turkey, but its effects have been felt for hundreds of kilometres, in neighbouring Syria, and even as far as Lebanon.

Turkey said Tuesday the total number of deaths in the country had passed 4,500, with some 26,000 people injured. 

The affected area in Syria is divided between government-controlled territory and the country's last opposition-held enclave, where millions live in extreme poverty and rely on humanitarian aid to survive.

The death toll in government-held areas of Syria climbed over 800, with some 1,400 injured, according to the Health Ministry. At least 900 people have died in the rebel-held northwest, according to the White Helmets, the emergency organization leading rescue operations, with more than 2,300 injured.

A young boy in a bright blue parka peers over his shoulder as he climbs a mound of rubble.
A boy climbs a pile of rubble in northwest Syria after a powerful earthquake struck neighbouring Turkey. (Submitted by Abdulkafi Alhamdo)

Alhamdo's community was already devastated by the war, he said. They have little food, no money, shoddy shelters, and one small medical clinic, which has had to treat hundreds of people in just a couple of days.

Some of the wounded are being treated outside in tents, he said, in the freezing cold. 

"Unfortunately, now, after about 41 hours, we didn't receive a single help or aid coming through the border lines. Not even from any country, nor from the UN," Alhamdo said, speaking fast and loud, his rage palpable. 

"They help Assad regime areas. They help Turkey. But what about us? The most devastated area, the area which is already devastated. The area which already was dying. Those people who already don't have anything to live with. Nevertheless, they are left alone."

Hundreds are trapped under the rubble he said, and there's nobody to dig them out.

"What we were doing is just working with our bare hands [and] simple tools to take them out. But our hands, these simple tools, could do nothing in front of dozens of tonnes of rubble," he said.

UN 'exploring all avenues'

The United Nations said it was "exploring all avenues" to get supplies to rebel-held northwestern Syria.

UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said the road leading to the Bab al-Hawa border crossing from Turkey was damaged, temporarily disrupting aid delivery. It's the only crossing through which UN aid is allowed into the area.

Dujarric said the UN is preparing a convoy to cross the conflict lines within Syria. But that would likely require a new agreement with Assad's government, which has laid siege to rebel-held areas throughout the civil war.

A line of people stand along a mound of concrete rubble.
White Helmets perform rescue operations in Bisnia, Syria, on Tuesday. (White Helmets/Reuters)

Meanwhile, volunteer first responders with the White Helmets say the earthquake has overwhelmed their capabilities. 

Mounir al-Mostafa, the deputy head of the White Helmets, said they were able to respond efficiently to up to 30 locations at a time but now face calls for help from more than 700.

"Teams are present in those locations, but the available machinery and equipment are not enough," he said, adding that the first 72 hours were crucial for any rescue effort.

'They need urgent help'

Alhamdo says the moments after the quake hit were difficult. He was at home with his pregnant wife, their daughter, and their four-year-old son.

They considered fleeing — but where would they go? So they waited it out.

Their home is still standing. But when Alhamdo went out to survey the quake's aftermath, he saw that many others were not so fortunate.

"I saw dozens of houses on the ground [and] many people trying to help," he said. "I saw many people in over the rubble screaming for their relatives who are under, and these people who are under the rubble screaming, responding, appealing for help."

He says he can still hear the screams now. 

A man in a hoodie and a beanie stands amid rubble and widespread ruin.
A man surveils the damage in northwestern Syria after a powerful earthquake struck Turkey on Monday. (Submitted by Abdulkafi Alhamdo)

He was filming the aftermath, he said, when he was confronted by a man carrying a tool he had used to try to dig his family out of the rubble. 

"I felt that he was about to hit me with [his digging tool]. I told him, 'Come on. I mean, I didn't mean you any harm.' He said, 'I'm not angry with you. I'm angry for myself. I'm angry from this world,'" Alhamdo said.

"He said, 'I died twice. I died when I left my village. Now I tried to begin again here. And now I lost everything.'

"I understood him. And even I couldn't tell him anything. I just left."

Asked who he blames for the dire situation, he couldn't point the finger at any one organization or country. After 12 long years of war, he says the whole world has abandoned them.

"I appeal to the international community," he said. "I need actions, not words, to be done to find a solution, a permanent solution for those people who are suffering in northwest Syria. These people, of course, they need urgent help."

With files from The Associated Press and Morgan Passi. Interview with Abdulkafi Alhamdo produced by Kevin Robertson.


Sheena Goodyear


Sheena Goodyear is a web journalist with CBC Radio's As It Happens in Toronto. She is equally comfortable tackling complex and emotionally difficult stories that hold truth to power, or spinning quirky yarns about the weird and wonderful things people get up to all over the world. She has a particular passion for highlighting stories from LGBTQ communities. Originally from Newfoundland and Labrador, her work has appeared on CBC News, Sun Media, the Globe & Mail, the Toronto Star, VICE News and more. You can reach her at

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