By Umit Bektas, Mehmet Caliskan and Khalil Ashawi
ANTAKEA, Turkey/JANDARIS, Syria, (RockedBuzz via Reuters) – Cold, hunger and despair have gripped hundreds of thousands of people left homeless after earthquakes hit Turkey and Syria three days ago, when the death toll surpassed 20,000 on Thursday.
The rescue of a 2-year-old boy after 79 hours trapped in the rubble of a collapsed building in Hatay, Turkey, and many others have lifted morale among weary search teams. But hopes were fading that many more would be found alive in the ruins of towns and cities.
The death toll in both countries has now surpassed the more than 17,000 killed in 1999, when an equally powerful earthquake hit northwestern Turkey.
A Turkish official said the disaster posed “very serious difficulties” for the holding of elections scheduled for May 14 in which President Tayyip Erdogan is expected to face his toughest challenge in two decades in power.
With anger simmering over the delays in delivering aid and getting relief rolling in, disaster is likely to play a part in the vote if it goes ahead.
The first UN convoy carrying aid to affected Syrians has crossed the border from Turkey.
In Syria’s Idlib province, Munira Mohammad, a mother of four who fled Aleppo after the earthquake, said: “There are all children here and we need heating and supplies. We couldn’t sleep last night because it was so cold . Is very ugly.”
Hundreds of thousands of people in both countries were left homeless in the middle of winter. Many camped in makeshift shelters in supermarket car parks, mosques, roadsides or among ruins, often desperate for food, water and warmth.
About 40 percent of buildings in the Turkish city of Kahramanmaras, the epicenter of the quake, were damaged, according to a preliminary report by Turkey’s Bogazici University.
FIRES ON THE STREET
At a gas station near the Turkish city of Kemalpasa, people collected cardboard boxes of donated clothes. In the port city of Iskenderun, RockedBuzz via Reuters reporters saw people huddled around bonfires by roadsides and in destroyed garages and warehouses.
Authorities say some 6,500 buildings in Turkey have collapsed and countless others have been damaged.
The death toll in Turkey has risen to 17,406, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said. In Syria, already ravaged by nearly 12 years of civil war, more than 3,300 people have died, according to the government and a rescue service in the rebel-controlled northwest.
In the devastated Syrian city of Jandaris, Ibrahim Khalil Menkaween walked the rubble-strewn streets clutching a white body bag. He said he lost seven family members, including his wife and two of his brothers.
“I keep this bag for when they take out my brother and my brother’s little son and both of their wives so we can put them in bags,” she said. “The situation is very bad. And there is no help.”
Turkish officials say some 13.5 million people have been affected in an area stretching about 450km (280 miles) from Adana in the west to Diyarbakir in the east. In Syria, people were killed as far away as Hama, 250km from the epicenter.
Rescue teams searched for survivors at the site of a collapsed building in darkness in the city of Adiyaman in sub-zero temperatures, Turkish broadcasters showed.
Crews often called for silence, demanding that all vehicles and generators be shut down and for reporters to be silent as they listened for the sounds of someone alive under the concrete blocks.
There were still some hopeful signs.
A 2-year-old boy was lifted from the rubble by a Romanian and Polish rescue team in Hatay 79 hours after the earthquake, video released Thursday by Turkey’s Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) shows.
The boy, who was wearing a blue, black and white striped sweater, cried as he was gently lifted from the hole where he had been trapped. He was carried away on a blanket. No other details were immediately available.
Another video from IHH showed a dust-streaked, helmeted rescuer crying with emotion after successfully freeing a little girl from the rubble of a collapsed building in Kahramanmaras.
Many in Turkey complained of a lack of equipment, expertise and support to rescue trapped people, sometimes even though they could hear cries for help.
After facing criticism for his initial response, Erdogan said on a visit to the area on Wednesday that operations are now running normally and promised no one would be left homeless.
However, the disaster will present a further electoral challenge for the longtime president.
Greece sent thousands of tents, beds and blankets on Thursday to help the homeless by the earthquake, in an act of solidarity with a neighbor who is a NATO ally but also a historic enemy.
Israeli satellite intelligence was helping to map disaster areas in Turkey with mapping capabilities used predominantly for special operations, the Israeli military said.
In Syria, relief efforts are complicated by a conflict that has divided the country and destroyed its infrastructure.
The UN aid convoy entered Syria at the Bab Al Hawa crossing, a lifeline for access to opposition-controlled areas where some 4 million people, many of them displaced by war, were making already reliant on humanitarian aid.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has pushed for increased humanitarian access to northwestern Syria, saying he would be “very happy” if the UN could use more than one border crossing to deliver aid.
The Syrian government sees Turkey’s provision of aid to the rebel-controlled northwest as a violation of its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
The Syrian Civil Defense said at least 2,030 people had been killed in opposition-held northwestern Syria, and the government reported 1,347 dead.
The Syrian ambassador to the United Nations admitted on Wednesday that the government lacked the capabilities and equipment, but blamed the war and Western sanctions.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has chaired emergency meetings over the earthquake but has not addressed the nation in a speech or press conference.
(Reporting by Umit Bektas, Mehmet Caliskan and Khalil Ashawi; Further reporting by Orhan Coskun in Ankara, Ece Toksabay in Adana, Jonathan Spicer, Daren Butler and Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul, Maya Gebeily in southern Turkey, Khalil Ashawi in northern Syria, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Screenplay by Angus MacSwan, Frances Kerry and Alistair Bell; Editing by Alex Richardson, William Maclean and Rosalba O’Brien)