Humanity at work

Amid the pain and suffering after the earthquake in Turkey and Syria, rescues from the rubble give us a glimmer of hope.

A?child?is rescued from the rubble after 150 hours in the aftermath of an earthquake in Hatay, Turkey, February 12, 2023 in this screen grab taken from a handout video. Turkish Health Ministry/ Handout via REUTERS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY.
A child is rescued from the rubble after 150 hours in the aftermath of an earthquake in Hatay, Turkey, on February 12, 2023 [Turkish Health Ministry via Reuters]

Day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute, the death toll in tattered and bleeding Turkey and Syria surges.

By the time this piece is published, that figure will have, no doubt, spiked again. The halting number of the dead and injured shocks the heart and soul. It is a blunt measure of the sad scope of this catastrophe triggered by nature and compounded, it appears, by greed and negligence.

The necessary hunt to hold accountable the craven, delinquent politicians, businessmen and institutions that may have played a role in making the broad, unfolding pain, suffering and loss much worse has begun.

But today we must remember that every one of the thousands who have been killed by an earthquake of such disfiguring magnitude was a human being with a name and a history.

Some were old; some, young. Some were fathers; some, mothers. Some were brothers; some, sisters. Some were sons; some, daughters. Some were friends; some, strangers.

They loved and were loved. Now, they are gone – suddenly and violently. And the lucky others – who escaped being consumed by an avalanche of stone and concrete – are left to mourn and search for their kin and neighbours they may have embraced and acknowledged with a smile or a wave only days ago.

Still, there have been moments when hope has prevailed over horror. In this humbling regard, we have had the privilege to witness scenes where humanity has, for once, prevailed over inhumanity; where kindness has, for once, prevailed over indifference; where sacrifice has, for once, prevailed over selfishness; where a kind of beauty has, for once, prevailed over ugliness.

We have also been moved and amazed by example after example of how the will to live – mysterious and indefatigable – is a powerful antidote to resignation and despair.

Throughout Turkey, rescuers have volunteered to try to find and save the buried. Their bravery and persistence were rewarded when, almost a week after the first mammoth earthquake struck, they unearthed a 64-year-old mother – alive.

Under a pristine blue sky, the fragile survivor was carried from the rubble on a stretcher wrapped in blankets. Her son was among the rescuers. He reassured her: “Mum, we are here.”

People, who had gathered nearby to watch quietly as she was ferried to a waiting ambulance, began to applaud. They clapped, I suspect, not only to honour her saviours, but to offer their respect and admiration to a determined woman who had defied death.

In Turkey’s Hatay province, a battered girl emerged whole after being entombed for more than 150 hours. Her still face, dark hair and blue sweater were caked in dust. There was a small, bloody cut on her brow. She was silent, her tiny arms frozen and outstretched – perhaps the residue of the trauma she endured alone. Her family’s fate is unknown. Someone, close by, was weeping at the sight of what can only be described as a miracle.

“Mashallah,” a rescuer said.

Then there is the remarkable story of the unlikely reunion of a Syrian father with his lost 18-month-old son.

Rescuers had taken the toddler, Ibrahim, to hospital and posted images of the bruised, lonely boy devouring a banana on social media, hoping to find his parents. That’s how Ibrahim’s father, Jomaa Biazid, discovered that his son was alive.

Later, spent, disheveled and crying, Jomaa greeted Ibrahim with a father’s gentle kiss. It was a sliver of unexpected joy that, for a little while, replaced the grief. Jomaa’s other son, Mustafa, is missing, while his wife and daughter were killed.

Of course, not all stories of rescue among the ruins have had a happy ending.

German search and rescue teams – prompted by the imperative to help – dug out 40-year-old Zeynep Kahraman earlier this week in Turkey. They wept after having saved a life.

The following day, the German rescuers learned that Zeynep had succumbed to injuries she had sustained to her body and spirit. She was exhausted. She had been trapped for 104 hours with loved ones who had not survived.

So, the German rescuers wept and hugged each other again. This time, for comfort and to lament Zeynep’s death. Their solace was knowing that they had made it possible for her to die among family.

“[Zeynep] just didn’t die there, all alone miserably without any contact,” one rescuer said. “In the end, her family was able to hold her in their arms.”

It is this video, above all, that encouraged me to write this column about the goodness and charity that we too often forget exists when the world and the ordinary people who populate it become extraordinary while tested by tragedy and disaster.

It shows the instant a Syrian child with a thick mat of black hair, wearing a yellow coat, is pulled from the debris. He looks pale and briefly confused as he is handed from one delighted rescuer to another.

Precisely how long he was imprisoned beneath the rubble and who he belongs to is unclear. A big smile that confirms he is not only alive, but well, flashes across his chalk-white face.

His rescuers cheer like a glad choir. The boy responds by laughing and playfully slapping at his rescuers as they plant kisses of gratitude and relief on his cheeks.

It is a wonderous sight which, at once, is a lovely expression of the innocence and resiliency of youth and the obligation most of us feel to aid others in dire distress.

As the hours and days inevitably pass, the prospect of finding more survivors – young or old – dwindles.

This fact, I am convinced, will not deter or prevent dogged Syrians, Turks and foreign volunteers from risking their lives to save others at risk.

This is, after all, humanity at work.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.