‘A terror unlike any that I can describe’: surviving the horror of the earthquake in Idlib

<span>Photograph: Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images

For the past two days, I have lived what has felt like an impossible nightmare.

At 4am on Monday, at our home in Idlib in north-west Syria, we were violently shaken awake by an extremely powerful earthquake.

It was a terror unlike any that I can describe, our home was shaking, our belongings were being tossed to the ground, screens were falling and shattering, pieces of the walls and chunks of the building collapsed.

In that moment, I did not think we would survive. I live with my wife and parents, and we were all violently woken up by this nightmare.

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We moved without grabbing anything, without changing our clothes, without our belongings or any food. We just dashed in desperation, clawing at the exits along with everyone in our building, as it collapsed around us.

There was a moment where I believed the building would collapse on to us, each step laced with terror, because the circumstances felt impossible. The apartment block next door collapsed as we woke up, and I truly believed we were next.

But we did escape, our desperation dragging us on to the street. My family and I moved as quickly as we could, getting only glimpses of our surroundings.

And it wasn’t just me and my family, but everyone, everyone around us, everyone in our building, everyone on our street, and almost all had left everything behind. Many were bare foot or without even their hijab, as they spilled on to the street.

Nobody spoke to each other, it was such a shock, we had no idea what was going on or what to do. People were only crying, praying to God, screaming in fear or just running.

The first thing I felt after I got out of my building was how bitterly cold it was. We jumped in our cars and left for anywhere we could find that didn’t have buildings, where we would be out of danger, until the shaking stopped.

Around two hours after we felt the initial shocks, news began to filter through about the other areas affected by the earthquake. We kept hearing that so-and-so building in this city collapsed, and in that city, an endless list of tragedies.

Rescue personnel and civilians search for survivors in Idlib
Rescue personnel and civilians search for survivors in Idlib Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

We drove for nearly 90 minutes, looking for somewhere safe to stay, eventually finding an encampment at a farm just outside the city, where people were gathering because there were no large buildings around.

I then left for the city again around four hours after the first shake, towards the areas hardest hit by the earthquakes and towards where the buildings had collapsed, because I knew I had to record what was happening and tell the world.

By the sixth or seventh hour, under the rain and the freezing cold, rescue efforts had kicked into gear, and many volunteers and emergency services were working hard to get people and bodies out from under the rubble.

I moved from building to building, and recorded the fear and despair that people felt, recorded their stories and their suffering. I also wanted to record the rescue efforts and the brave people attempting to sift through the rubble.

By Monday afternoon, we received news that there could be more shakes, that it wasn’t just aftershocks but that we could be in danger of facing a whole other earthquake.

Fear gripped us as we dispersed from our efforts, and towards safe areas, away from large buildings. Everyone moved quickly to protect themselves and their families.

We waited until around 7pm, by which time everyone was outside large buildings and as safe as can be, with rescue efforts delayed until the morning out of fear of aftershocks.

In that time, we attempted to return home to collect our belongings, but on our first try, at around 1pm, the second major earthquake hit and we escaped with our lives again, but barely anything else to show for it.

We returned home a couple of times to just grab whatever we could, but each time we returned, we felt an aftershock rock the building. It became a recurring theme, every time we tried to return home, the earth shook. Eventually, we felt there was little to save anyway.

As night approached, between trying to get my family to safety, trying to keep them safe throughout the day, and trying to record and report on as much as I can, I felt utterly exhausted.

We visited a family friend to collect some supplies, including blankets and food, before we settled in to sleep in our car at the farm.

It was an extremely uncertain, difficult time. It’s hard to describe, we were exhausted, desperate and terrified. The electricity had been cut all day, our internet had slowed to a crawl and it had been almost impossible to get anything out.

At 6am on Tuesday, we returned home again, this time to take stock of the destruction. Little has remained of our belongings, but at least we have each other.