Death toll rises to over 20,000 in Turkey, Syria quake
Cold, hunger and despair gripped hundreds of thousands of people left homeless after the earthquakes that struck Turkey and Syria three days ago as the death toll passed 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 several other people raised spirits among weary search crews. But hopes were fading that many more would be found alive in the ruins of towns and cities.
The death toll across both countries has now surpassed the more than 17,000 killed in 1999 when a similarly powerful quake hit northwest Turkey.
On the other side of the border in Syria, another 2,902 people have been reported to have been killed.
Rescue workers continued to pull living people from the damaged homes but hope was starting to fade amid freezing temperatures more than three full days since the quake hit.
For Mesut Hancer — a resident of Turkish city Kahramanmaras, near the epicentre — it is already too late.
He sat on the freezing rubble, too grief-stricken to speak, refusing to let go of his 15-year-old daughter Irmak's hand as her body lay lifeless among the slabs of concrete and strands of twisted rebar.
Even for survivors, the future seems bleak.
Many have taken refuge from relentless aftershocks, cold rain and snow in mosques, schools and even bus shelters -- burning debris to stay alive.
Frustration is growing that help has been slow to arrive.
"I can't get my brother back from the ruins. I can't get my nephew back. Look around here. There is no state official here, for God's sake," said Ali Sagiroglu in Kahramanmaras.
"For two days we haven't seen the state around here... Children are freezing from the cold," he said.
In nearby Gaziantep, shops are closed, there is no heat because gas lines have been cut to avoid explosions, and finding petrol is tough.
Sixty-one-year-old resident Celal Deniz said the police had to intervene when impatient crowds waiting for rescue teams "revolted".
About 100 others wrapped in blankets slept in the lounge of an airport terminal normally used to welcome Turkish politicians and celebrities.
"We saw the buildings collapse so we know we are lucky to be alive," said Zahide Sutcu, who went to the airport with her two small children.
"But now our lives have so much uncertainty. How will I look after these children?"
Across the border in northern Syria, a decade of civil war and Syrian-Russian aerial bombardment had already destroyed hospitals, collapsed the economy and prompted electricity, fuel and water shortages.
In the rebel-controlled town of Jindayris, even the joy of rescuing a newborn baby was tainted with sadness.
She was still tethered to her mother who was killed in the disaster.
"We heard a voice while we were digging," Khalil al-Suwadi, a relative, told AFP.
"We cleared the dust and found the baby with the umbilical cord (intact) so we cut it and my cousin took her to hospital."
The infant faces a difficult future as the sole survivor among her immediate family. The rest were buried together in a mass grave on Tuesday.
Dozens of nations including the United States, China and the Gulf States have pledged to help, and search teams as well as relief supplies have begun to arrive by air.
A winter storm has compounded the misery by rendering many roads -- some of them damaged by the quake -- almost impassable, resulting in traffic jams that stretch for kilometres in some regions.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared a three-month state of emergency in 10 southeastern provinces.
The World Health Organisation has warned that up to 23 million people could be affected by the massive earthquake and urged nations to rush help to the disaster zone.
The Syrian Red Crescent appealed to Western countries to lift sanctions and provide aid as President Bashar al-Assad's government remains a pariah in the West, complicating international relief efforts.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States would not work with the Damascus government.
"These funds, of course, go to the Syrian people -- not to the regime. That won't change," he said.
Aid agencies have also asked the Syrian government to allow border crossings to be reopened to bring help to rebel-held areas.
The Turkey-Syria border is one of the world's most active earthquake zones.
Monday's earthquake was the largest Turkey has seen since 1939, when 33,000 died in the eastern Erzincan province.
A 7.4-magnitude earthquake killed more than 17,000 people in 1999.
Experts have long warned a large quake could devastate Istanbul, a megalopolis of 16 million people filled with rickety homes.