"From today on, I will live in the car with my family, until I can find a tent to put up, as there is nowhere left to escape to”. With great sorrow and a sigh that displays a mixture of sadness and fatigue, Mohammad Saeed Rahal utters these words. Mohammad, a local of the city of Harem in the northern countryside of Idlib, lost his house after it was partially demolished in the earthquake on Monday, February 6. He and his family took refuge in his father's house, whose walls began to crack in the latest earthquake that took place two days ago. He is now staying in the car until he finds a tent in an area where, less than twenty days ago, it had been the dream of every inhabitant to get rid of every last tent there.
But what dreams are we talking about, in a country shrouded by death from all sides for years, that it has become a place where calamities come hand-in-hand with, and the world only remembers it as a sad country that lived through the most difficult types of wars, devastation, and destruction. And here it is, only two weeks after the first earthquake that destroyed so much, wading into the second, as if the message to its people says: As soon as you come out of one tragedy, you’ll dive right into another, and you'll only have death as your companion.
Escaping into danger
Two days ago, on Monday, February 20, while darkness enveloped it, both physically and in temperament, the quiet, grief-stricken city suddenly turned into a place full of screaming and panic once again. Another earthquake, another escape, a new and never ending fear; catastrophe after catastrophe for the people, and no time for dreams.
Here in Idlib, people rushed to farmland to escape mother nature. While they were running in terror, Ahmed Abu Ali was running in the opposite direction, towards the shaking buildings, raising his voice while reciting the Qur'an, as he climbed the stairs of the building he lives in, to fetch his little one from the house, after the whole family fled in fear of the earthquake, but the young age of his child Youssef did not allow him to catch up with them. The father noticed after he had reached the open field, and breathlessly ran back to save his little one.
"My brother, fear tears the mind apart. Maybe if I jump from the second floor, some of my bones may shatter, but that is better than being buried under the rubble of the five floors above me"
After returning holding his child, he caught his breath and smiled as if he had won some grand prize. He looked at his child and began to laugh, as he had been training on how to escape and survive with his family since the first earthquake. He recounts how when he "panicked, he forgot everything he had tried to practice before”. Ahmed, like everyone else, is tired of life, but he still clings to it, in a strange paradox, and what a strange place full of oddities, this spot labeled "liberated", is.
"Fear tears the mind apart"
The doctor was bandaging Saeed Kilani’s leg when the latter began to tell his story. He speaks and I stand there at a loss; Should I laugh or cry? I tried to let go of my feelings to follow what Saeed was saying. His features were changing as he spoke. He laughs, then falls silent, then shows signs of fear on his face, and so on, until he finishes.
Saeed, who works for a humanitarian organization, says, "My colleagues and I were able to get one day of rest after 14 days of continuous work in responding to the victims and those affected by the earthquake. I invited my friends to stay up at my house in a desperate attempt to forget a little of the horror of the earthquake and everything I had lived with them from the moment the first earthquake happened."
Once again, the people spent the night out in the open among the olive trees. In the morning, they refused to return to their homes and stayed among those trees. They say they won't leave them, they won't go back. They have tasted enough fear and death
Saeed recounts that after his friends arrived at his house, and before they could even finish drinking their cup of "welcome" coffee, began the quake that terrorized them so much that they jumped out of the window of the room they were sitting in, instead of going down the stairs, because they had heard stories from survivors that most of those who died were lost as they descended the stairs to escape.
Before I could even ask him any questions, he says, "My brother, fear tears the mind apart. Maybe if I jump from the second floor, some of my bones may shatter, but that is better than being buried under the rubble of the five floors above me in the building," to end his words with a smile, followed by a cry of pain as the anesthetic begins to wear off from his injured leg.
“Her water broke”
While touring the streets of Idlib following the earthquake, I found my friend Hussam Darwish in front of one of the city's hospitals pacing the entrance, even though he was the first to leave the city out of fear for his pregnant wife after having spent years waiting for his first child. I asked him what had brought him to the city, and he replied, "Because of the earthquake, her water broke while she was still in her seventh month of pregnancy," and then burst into tears. The term “her water broke” means that a woman has gone into labor and must give birth right away.
I stayed with him for a while, trying to calm him down. Soon after, he received the news that his wife had given birth, and she and the baby were fine. His joy was too great to describe, as if an eternity had passed without him being able to smile. I asked him what he would name his daughter. "I will call her Salam (peace), in hopes that we may be able to live with her in peace without the death or destruction caused by earthquakes or the bombing that I was afraid of in the first months of her mother's pregnancy," he says with a smile.
I asked him what he would name his daughter. He said, "I will call her Salam (peace), in hopes that we may be able to live with her in peace without the death or destruction caused by earthquakes or bombing"
I left my friend to continue my tour of the city, where the streets had turned into a raging sea of humans, after all its people took to the streets. The scene was a repeat of the same exact one two weeks ago, but this time the fear was doubled. With every tremor, the people, including myself, begin to recall the scenes they lived through in the areas devastated by the earthquake.
This time the fear was multiplied several times over for the survivors. Once again, they spent the night out in the open among the olive trees or in cars and parks where it was freezing cold and there was no vital facilities. In the morning, the people refused to return to their homes and stayed among those trees. They say they won't leave them, they won't go back. They have tasted enough fear and death.
The day before yesterday, millions of residents of northern Syria and southern Turkey experienced a new night of terror, after the province of Hatay was hit by two consecutive earthquakes, with a magnitude of 6.3 and 5.8. People felt the tremor throughout the entire region, from Lebanon and Palestine to Jordan and Egypt. The Syrian Civil Defense announced that 190 injuries resulted from this latest quake in its areas of operation, as damage assessments and inspections of the affected buildings continue in both Syria and Turkey.
Note: This article was written among the olive trees in the eastern farms of Idlib, because the building I live in was not left intact this time around, after huge cracks began to appear on its walls. Every time I walk into the house, I imagine myself in a tragic scene similar to what I have witnessed as a journalist during the past two weeks in my coverage of the earthquake. We are human beings, we want life, and we don't mind a little fear, but what we are living through is indescribable. We deserve better.
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