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Earthquake stuns Syrian Aleppo, even after the horrors of war


BEIRUT — For years, the people of Aleppo suffered bombing and fighting as their city, once Syria’s largest and most cosmopolitan city, was one of the fiercest battle zones of the civil war. Even that didn’t prepare them for the new devastation and terror that this week’s earthquake brought.

The natural disaster added to many man-made disasters, increasing suffering in Aleppo and Syria more broadly.

Fighting in Aleppo largely came to a halt in 2016, but only a small number of the many damaged and destroyed buildings had been rebuilt. The population has also recently suffered from Syria’s economic downturn, which has driven up food prices and plunged residents into poverty.

The shock of the earthquake is too much.

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

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

“But… we didn’t know what to do with the earthquake. I was afraid we would die.”

The 7.8-magnitude quake predawn Monday, about 70 miles (112 kilometers) away in Turkey, jolted Aleppans awake and sent them into the streets under a cold winter rain. Dozens of buildings in the city collapsed. More than 360 people were killed and hundreds more injured in the city. Three days later, workers were still digging through the rubble, searching for the dead and survivors. More than 11,000 people were killed across southern Turkey and northern Syria.

Even those whose buildings were still standing remain afraid to return. Many take shelter in schools. A Maronite Christian monastery took in more than 800 people, mostly women, children and the elderly, crammed into every room.

“So far we are not sleeping in our houses. Some people sleep in their cars,” said Imad al-Khal, the secretary general of Christian denominations in Aleppo, who helped 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 Syria’s civil war began. For the next few years, Russian-backed government forces fought to uproot them.

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

A final offensive led to months of urban fighting, which finally ended in December 2016 with a government victory. Opposition fighters and supporters were evacuated and the entire city was controlled by the government. Activist groups estimate that some 31,000 people have been killed in the four years of fighting and almost the entire population of the eastern sector has been displaced.

Aleppo became a symbol of how President Bashar Assad managed to reclaim most of the opposition-controlled territory around the heart of Syria with support from Russia and Iran at the cost of horrific destruction. The opposition has a final, small enclave in the northwest, centered around Idlib province and parts of Aleppo province, which was also devastated by Monday’s earthquake.

But Aleppo never recovered. Each reconstruction was done by private individuals. The city’s current population remains well below its pre-2011 population of 4.5 million. Much of the eastern sector remains in ruins and empty.

Buildings damaged during the war or built sloppily 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 fellow at Carnegie Middle East who is originally from the city. Now, he said, it is economically marginalized, lacking basic gas and electricity infrastructure, and the population – who had hoped for improvements after the fighting ended – has seen it get worse.

They have also now experienced the physical and psychological blow of the earthquake, Tokmajyan said. “They wondered: do they really deserve this fate or not? I think the trauma is great and it will be some time before they swallow this really bitter pill after (more than) 10 years of war.”

Born in Aleppo, Rodin Allouch reported on the war for a Syrian TV channel.

“I used to be on the frontline, shooting video and getting firsts. I was never afraid. Rockets and grenades fell and everything, but my morale was high,” he recalled.

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

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

“It’s safer to be downstairs (on the ground floor) when there’s an earthquake,” he said, but complained that there is 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-controlled town in Aleppo province.

Their building there completely collapsed in the earthquake, though the entire family was able to escape.

He said the earthquake, with its devastation all over and its aftermath – watching rescue crews pull bodies from the rubble – was “much more horrifying than during the war.”

And while war may be futile, those who are part of it often have a purpose for which they sacrifice themselves and wrest meaning from death and destruction.

The devastation of the war in Aleppo “is somehow proof that we are not easily defeated,” said Wissam Zarqa, an opposition supporter from the city who was there during the siege and now in the Turkish capital Ankara lives.

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

Associated Press writers Abby Sewell and Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contributed to this report.

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