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Earthquake stuns Aleppo in Syria even after horrors of war

The shock of the earthquake is too much.

Hovig Shehrian said during the worst of the war in Aleppo in 2014, he and his parents fled their home in a frontline area because of shelling and sniper fire. For years, they moved from neighborhood to neighborhood to avoid fighting.

“It was part of our daily routine. Every time we heard a noise we would leave, we knew who to call and what to do,” the 24-year-old said.

“But…we didn’t know what to do with the earthquake. I was afraid that we were going to die.

Monday’s predawn magnitude 7.8 earthquake, centered some 70 miles away in Turkey, jolted residents of Aleppo and sent them fleeing into the streets in cold winter rain. Dozens of buildings across the city collapsed. More than 360 people were killed in the city and hundreds more were injured. Workers were still digging through the rubble three days later, looking for the dead and survivors. In southern Turkey and northern Syria, more than 11,000 people have been killed.

Even those whose buildings are still standing are afraid to return. Many are now housed in schools. A Maronite Christian monastery housed more than 800 people, especially women, children and the elderly, crammed into each room.

“Until now, we don’t sleep at home. Some people sleep in their cars,” said Imad al-Khal, the general secretary of Christian denominations in Aleppo, which was helping organize shelters.

For many, the earthquake was a new kind of terror – a shock even after what they endured during the war.

For Aleppo, the war was a long and brutal siege. Rebels captured the eastern part of the city in 2012, shortly after the start of Syria’s civil war. Over the next few years, Russian-backed government forces fought to uproot them.

Syrian and Russian airstrikes and bombardments flattened entire blocks. Bodies were found in the river separating the two parts of the city. On the government-held western side, residents have regularly faced mortar and rocket fire from opposition fighters.

A final offensive led to months of urban fighting, finally ending in December 2016 with government victory. Opposition fighters and supporters were evacuated and government control imposed on the entire city. Activist groups estimate that around 31,000 people have been killed in the four years of fighting and that almost the entire population of the eastern sector has been displaced.

Aleppo has become a symbol of how President Bashar Assad managed to reclaim most of the opposition-held territory around the heartland of Syria with the support of Russia and Iran at the cost of horrific destruction. The opposition holds one last small enclave in the northwest, centered on Idlib province and parts of Aleppo province, also devastated by Monday’s quake.

But Aleppo never recovered. All reconstruction was done by individuals. The city’s current population of no more than 4 million remains lower than its pre-2011 population of 4.5 million. Much of the eastern sector remains in ruins and empty.

Buildings damaged during the war or poorly constructed during the fighting regularly collapse. A collapse on January 22 killed 16 people. Another in September killed 11 people, including three children.

Aleppo was once Syria’s industrial powerhouse, said Armenak Tokmajyan, a nonresident Carnegie Middle East fellow from the city. Now, he said, it is economically marginalized, basic gas and electricity infrastructure is lacking, and its people – who had hoped for improvements after the fighting ended – have only seen things get worse. aggravate.

They also suffered the physical — and psychological — shock of the quake, Tokmajyan said. “It left them wondering, do they really deserve this fate or not? I think the trauma is great and it will take time before they swallow this really bitter pill after (more than) 10 years of war.

Rodin Allouch, originally from Aleppo, covered the war for a Syrian television channel.

“I was on the front line, I was getting video shots, I was getting scoops. I was never scared. Rockets and shells were falling and everything, but my morale was high,” recalls- he.

The earthquake was different. “I don’t know what the earthquake did to us exactly. We felt that we were going to join God. It was the first time in my life that I was afraid. »

During the war, he had to leave his neighborhood in the eastern sector and rent an apartment on the western side. But the earthquake moved him once more. As their building shook, he, his wife and four children fled to a nearby garden. Allouch said he will not return until the building is inspected and repaired. It is still standing, but has many cracks. The family will instead stay in a nearby ground floor storefront that he has rented.

“It’s safer to be downstairs (ground floor) if there’s an earthquake,” he said, but complained there was no fuel for heating. “Life is so miserable.”

Many others in Aleppo have been displaced more than once.

Farouk al-Abdullah fled his farm south of the city of Aleppo during the war. Since then, he has lived with his two wives, 11 children and 70-year-old mother in Jenderis, an opposition-held town in Aleppo province.

Their building completely collapsed in the earthquake, although the whole family was able to escape.

He said the earthquake, with its destruction everywhere and its aftermath – watching rescue teams pull bodies from the rubble – “is much more horrific than during the war”.

And while war can be senseless, those who participate in it often have a cause for which they sacrifice themselves and wrest meaning from death and destruction.

The devastation of the war in Aleppo at least “is kind of proof that we weren’t easily defeated,” said Wissam Zarqa, an opposition supporter from the city who was there throughout the siege and now lives in Ankara, the Turkish capital.

“But the destruction of natural disasters is only pain and nothing but pain.”

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