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Two children playing near a makeshift tent where their family is now staying after the earthquake. Alamy Stock Photo

Eyewitness One man had seen the bodies of his wife, kids and parents brought out of the rubble

There was also a huge shortage of coffins and body bags, writes midwife Aisha Harbalieh from Azaz in northern Syria.

WHEN THE EARTHQUAKE struck at 4.17am on 6 February, my family and I were asleep at our home in Azaz, northern Syria.

We live in a five-storey building and we felt it shaking above our heads. I yelled at my husband to get our two-year-old daughter Lareen and he held her close to him.

I ran to wake our other two children in their bedroom and together we made our way out to the street, not knowing what was happening.

My neighbour was screaming. She’s a mother of two and her husband wasn’t around.

My husband picked up her son and we helped her get out.

Our neighbours on the upper floors threw their kids down for us to catch them.

Outside, we looked around us in complete shock, not understanding what was happening. Some people had stayed in their buildings, others might have had their homes collapse over their heads.

I walked through the streets of our neighbourhood until I was sure that no buildings had collapsed. Then I came back and held my children. We spent the rest of the night with our neighbours in the courtyard in the rain. We were all terrified.

As a mother, I just wanted to be there for my children, especially as my eldest son was killed during the shelling of Aleppo. The first thing in my mind was the need to protect my children and take them to a safe place.

But I couldn’t stay with my children for long. I needed to go and help. Hospitals were asking for medical teams to come and support them. People rescued from under the rubble were arriving at hospitals, which were soon overwhelmed.


I got in the car and headed to volunteer at the hospital that was most in need of medics. I started working in the emergency room and was in close contact with the Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) teams in the area and with MSF’s medical advisor. She asked what we needed in terms of medicines and surgical and medical supplies.

At 1.24pm we felt the massive aftershock. The hospital building is made of metal panels so could have collapsed at any moment. The injured rushed to get out of the hospital. Mothers, children, everyone, they were running for their lives.

I saw a pregnant woman who was about to give birth helped out of the building. It was very frightening.

We received more than 50 injured people who arrived at the hospital from all regions. All four operating theatres were at capacity. The rooms were covered in blood. The surgeons were performing bone-cutting procedures (osteotomies) and abdominal surgeries (laparoscopies).

msf-response-to-the-earthquakes-through-atmeh-hospital Syrian doctors operate on a patient in a hospital in Atmeh. Abdul Majeed Al Qareh / MSF Abdul Majeed Al Qareh / MSF / MSF

There was a huge shortage of equipment and the surgeons couldn’t carry out all the osteotomies required – they had to refer patients to other hospitals for surgery. There was also a huge shortage of coffins and body bags. The number of dead bodies was huge: women, children, elderly people.

One man had seen the bodies of his wife, kids and parents brought out from under the rubble. He couldn’t handle it and was in a state of shock. He couldn’t grasp that his whole family had been buried under the rubble.

Every half an hour, we received another member of his family: his son, his father, then his brothers. He lost more than 13 family members. And he wasn’t the only one.

We tried to relieve the pain of the children as much as we could. We took them to the nursery room to keep them away from the blood and harsh sights of the hospital. That’s all we could do.

The end of the world

At midnight, there was a call for an orthopaedist, a bone specialist, to amputate the foot of a girl who was trapped under the rubble. They needed a doctor and an anaesthetic technician to perform the amputation. Along with other medics, they headed to the location at 4am to amputate the girl’s foot and rescue her from under the rubble. The scene was horrifying. Everyone was saying it felt like the end of the world.

On the second day, I went to the MSF office in Al-Salameh, in northern Syria. We contacted hospitals hit by the earthquake to know what their needs were. After that we formed four groups, each made up of medics and logisticians, to visit together with our partners each of the regions hit by the earthquake: Afrin, Jindiris, Azaz and Marea.

When we reached these regions, we started supporting our partners in distributing aid to people in need: pillows, mattresses, blankets, cleaning supplies and kitchen equipment – basic essentials for people who had sought refuge in fields, under olive trees or on barren land. We looked for families who had no shelter and no essentials, especially mothers with babies.

It was very cold and raining and snowing. Soon gyms, playgrounds and community centres were opened for people seeking shelter. When we saw the overcrowding and people without essentials such as blankets and mattresses, we provided them with aid and supplies of food.

It’s difficult to meet everyone’s needs on our own, because these regions were hit so severely and the damage from the earthquake is immense. Our aid is targeted at those who had lost their houses completely.

Aisha Harbalieh is from Azaz in northern Syria and works as a midwife supervisor with Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in the region. 


Aisha Harbalieh
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