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Deadly earthquake exacerbates suffering of displaced Syrians


DARKUSH, Syria (AP) — A steady stream of injured were flowing into an overwhelmed hospital in the town of Darkush, in rebel-held northwestern Syria on Monday, after a deadly earthquake struck the region. Mothers hovered over crying children.

Amid the chaos, one man sat with a dazed expression, his face covered with abrasions.

The man, Osama Abdul Hamid, had barely made it out alive with his wife and four children from his apartment building in the nearby village of Azmarin. Many of their neighbors were not so lucky.

“The building is four stories, and from three of them, no one made it out,” Abdul Hamid said, breaking down in tears. “God gave me a new lease on life.”

The powerful 7.8 magnitude quake that struck before dawn on Monday wreaked new damage and suffering in Syria’s last rebel-held enclave, already wrecked by years of fighting and bombardment and housing millions of displaced Syrians who had fled their homes during the country’s civil war.

Hospitals and clinics were flooded with injured. In the enclave, centered in Idlib province, many of the displaced live in dire conditions in makeshift camps. Many others there and in neighboring government-held areas are housed in buildings weakened by past bombings and left even more vulnerable to shocks from earthquakes.

The quake caused total and partial damage to buildings in at least 58 villages, towns and cities in northwestern Syria, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor.

More than 1,300 people were killed in Turkey and Syria, with the toll expected to climb. In the opposition-held territory in Syria, more than 100 were reported dead, but hundreds more were believed be buried under the rubble of their homes.

“This disaster will worsen the suffering of Syrians already struggling with a severe humanitarian crisis,” Carsten Hansen, the director for Middle East at the Norwegian Refugee Council, said in a statement. “Millions have already been forced to flee by war in the wider region and now many more will be displaced by disaster.”

In the hospital in Darkush in western Idlib, Abdel Hamid told how his family were sleeping in their apartment when they were roused by powerful, prolonged shaking. They ran from the apartment, but “before we reached the door of the building, the whole building came down on us,” he said.

A wooden door shielded them from the worst force of the collapse — they all got out alive. He and his wife and three of the children suffered head injuries but are all in stable condition.

The scale of the casualties quickly overwhelmed the hospital’s resources, said Majdi al-Ibrahim, a general surgeon at the hospital.

“We need urgent help. The danger is beyond our capacity,” he said.

The Syrian American Medical Society, which runs hospitals in northern Syria and southern Turkey, said in a statement that its facilities are “overwhelmed with patients filling the hallways” and called urgently for “trauma supplies and a comprehensive emergency response to save lives and treat the injured.”

The opposition territory in the northwest corner of Syria has held out for years even after Syrian government forces retook most rebel-held areas around the country.

Fighting still flares from time to time with Russian-backed Syrian forces nearby. Parts of the territory are run by rebel groups, including a dominant al-Qaida-linked militant faction, while parts are under a Turkish-backed administration known as the Syrian Interim Government.

The disaster came on the heels of severe winter storms, further adding to the misery of those left without shelter.

“There is rain and the weather is very cold, there is snow in some of the areas,” Abdel Hakim al-Masri, economy minister with the Turkish-backed regional administration, told The Associated Press. He noted that some of the displacement camps in the area had been decimated by the quake.

“There is a huge amount of suffering, and this will increase it,” he said.

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Sewell reported from Beirut.