Toll from quakes passes 20,000; Turkey builds makeshift cemetery to bury hundreds


KAHRAMANMARAS, Turkey — Yellow excavators dug long trenches on the edge of a pine forest here Thursday, rushing to provide burial space for hundreds of people recovered from collapsed buildings as authorities in Turkey and Syria announced the death toll from this week’s earthquakes had surpassed 20,000, making it the deadliest such disaster in more than a decade.

The makeshift, rapidly expanding cemetery just outside Kahramanmaras, a city near the initial quake’s epicenter, hinted at the massive effort that would be required in the coming weeks to bury the victims, as a small battalion of gravediggers, prosecutors, mortuary workers and others descended on the site. Elsewhere, desperate efforts were still underway to rescue survivors and attend to the tens of thousands of people displaced by the earthquakes.

A United Nations aid convoy crossed into rebel-held northwest Syria through Turkey Thursday, the first since the earthquake disaster flattened neighborhoods in both countries.

Rescue and relief efforts in Syria have been hampered by the effects of years of a war that divided the country into areas of government and opposition control and ravaged the health-care system. The United Nations said damage to delivery routes from the quakes has delayed aid to the rebel enclave in Syria’s northwest, where millions of people are displaced and many live in camps.

As foreign rescuers arrive, Turkish earthquake survivors scramble for aid

Hope of finding more people in the wreckage is dimming, and survivors and opposition politicians in Turkey have expressed frustration at the disaster response to Monday’s quakes. Freezing temperatures have lengthened the odds, even as international rescue teams arrive in Turkey with equipment and rescue dogs to detect the scent of humans beneath the wreckage. But in both Turkey and rebel-held areas of Syria, rescuers continued to pull survivors including young children out of the rubble, alive, in a race against time.

The death toll in Turkey — which has sustained the majority of fatalities so far — rose Thursday to at least 17,406, with more than 70,000 injured, health minister Fehrettin Koca said. The full impact of the pair of major earthquakes may not be clear for weeks, given the scale of the damage. Already, it ranks as the world’s deadliest earthquake disaster in more than a decade.

At least three U.S. citizens were among those killed in southern Turkey, according to the State Department.

In government-held parts of Syria, the death toll rose to 1,347, with 2,295 injured, state media outlets reported. Rescuers in the rebel-hold northwest reported Thursday that more than 2,030 were dead and 2,950 injured, a tally they expect to rise in the coming days.

‘I saw death’: Rescuers in rebel-held Syria plead for help after quake

Six trucks carrying aid crossed into northwestern Syria “shortly after noon local time” via the corridor through Turkey, said Jens Laerke, spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

He said a shipment hub in southern Turkey was not damaged but that the quakes hit roads in the area that are used for deliveries. “On the Turkish side, we were able to identify two routes that we will be using from now on because the regular one was too damaged,” he said. “We consider this a test, that things can restart,” he said earlier of Thursday’s convoy, which included “shelter material and nonfood items.”

The Syrian Civil Defense group in the northwest said that Thursday’s delivery was the resumption of the regular assistance, not specialized aid or tools for its rescue teams.

Syrians are “desperate for equipment that will help us save lives from under the rubble,” said the aid group known as the White Helmets, which operates in the region outside government control.

The group said earlier that river flooding had reached a camp for the displaced near the town of Salqin in the northwest Idlib region, adding to the plight of residents.

Access to the rebel-held region has been restricted by the Syrian government during the war. It also requires approval from the Turkish government that controls the Bab al-Hawa border crossing.

Before Monday’s quakes, humanitarian needs in northwest Syria were already at their highest levels since the civil war in Syria began, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres told reporters Thursday.

The United Nations is deploying disaster assessment experts, coordinating search-and-rescue teams, and sending emergency relief — “and we are committed to do much more,” he said.

Martin Griffiths, undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs and the United Nations’ emergency relief coordinator, has arrived in Turkey and is set to visit Gaziantep, near the epicenter in southern Turkey, and Aleppo and Damascus in Syria over the weekend, Guterres said. The United Nations has released $25 million from its central emergency response fund and plans to launch a fresh appeal for donor support.

“Now is the time to exploit all possible avenues to get aid and personnel into all affected areas,” he said, calling for the governments involved to put politics aside and open more crossings — from both Turkey and Syrian government-controlled areas — into the rebel-held region in Syria. Delivery of aid to the enclave has depended on a vote by the U.N. Security Council. In 2020, Russia, a permanent member of the council, forced all aid border crossings to close except for Bab al-Hawa.

Guterres also said international sanctions should not interfere with the emergency response.

Why is it so hard to help Syria’s earthquake victims?

A drone video shared by Syria’s White Helmets on Feb. 8 shows people digging mass graves for victims of the earthquake disaster. (Video: Reuters)

Across the border in Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited densely populated Gaziantep on Thursday, where the quakes devastated residential blocks. He also visited the quake-struck cities of Osmaniye and Kilis later Thursday.

“With the scope and impact of the disaster we have experienced being this great, there may be some delays and shortcomings,” he said in Osmaniye.

Erdogan has urged citizens to be patient, and pledged to rebuild shattered towns and cities within a year — a tough prospect. More than 6,400 were destroyed, the government estimates.

He said the Turkish government would offer families 10,000 Turkish lire, or around $530.

Nearly 100 countries and hundreds of NGOs have provided medical aid to Turkey, and more than 6,300 emergency personnel had arrived from 56 countries, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said at a news conference Thursday. Another 19 countries would deploy teams within 24 hours, he said.

Washington Post journalists in southern Turkey saw survivors scuffle for tents distributed by aid agencies and scramble for blankets. Families who had missing loved ones sifted through the debris without assistance, with heavy equipment arriving days after the temblors struck.

“The situation is very bad,” said Mohammed Farhan Khalid, the leader of a team of Pakistani rescuers in the shattered southern city of Adiyaman. He compared the Turkish earthquakes to a 2005 earthquake in Kashmir that killed tens of thousands.

The earthquakes have orphaned a large number of children. Turkey’s social services minister said Thursday that 16 unaccompanied babies were flown from Kahramanmaras in the south to the capital, Ankara, to be cared for by state institutions.

Sixteen babies from quake-hit Kahramanmaras were safely brought to Ankara aboard a Turkish presidential plane on Feb. 9. (Video: Reuters)

Access to social media platforms Twitter and TikTok was restricted for some Turkish users on Wednesday. The internet-monitoring group NetBlocks later stated that Twitter services were restored after Turkish policymakers met with Twitter officials.

Ankara has previously cracked down on social media companies in the wake of disasters or during periods of political scandal or unrest. Erdogan is facing an election in a few months, and recovering from the earthquakes will be a major test of his two-decade grip on power.

Turkish residents struggle to access Twitter in earthquake aftermath

A three-month state of emergency entered into force Thursday in the 10 quake-affected provinces in Turkey, after a vote in the Turkish parliament. The declaration will allow authorities to prevent people from looting stores and take action against groups trying to profit from the disaster, Turkey’s disaster management agency quoted Erdogan as saying.

Amar Nadhir in Bucharest, Zeynep Karatas in Adiyaman, Turkey, and Paulina Villegas, Naomi Nix, Anumita Kaur and Semanur Karayaka in Washington contributed to this report.

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