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Turkey and Syria face multiple challenges as they try to rescue quake survivors

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Overnight, the death toll from Monday's earthquake and the aftershocks climbed to more than 11,000 lives in Turkey and Syria.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We can say that many people also have been pulled from the rubble of thousands of collapsed buildings - thousands of people injured but alive. Search and rescue teams work in freezing temperatures, but how much time is left?

FADEL: NPR's Rob Schmitz is in Istanbul to talk about this. Hi, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So can you give us a big picture of the recovery efforts? What are rescue workers facing right now?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, I think the biggest challenge right now is time.

FADEL: Yeah.

SCHMITZ: It's been around 60 hours since the initial earthquake. Weather conditions have worsened with both temperatures dipping below freezing and now snow. And rescuers are working more than two days straight, many without sleep, doing whatever they can to reach survivors who are trapped under tons of rubble. You know, aid groups say the first 72 hours after a natural disaster like this are the most crucial to rescue survivors. So it's a really harrowing and desperate situation. Yesterday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared a state of emergency for 10 Turkish provinces. He addressed the nation, and here's what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Speaking Turkish).

SCHMITZ: He's saying here that he prays to God for mercy for the citizens who've lost their lives, that he's declaring a national mourning period for the next week. And he promised his citizens that his government is making all the measures it can to rescue those who've survived.

FADEL: I mean, the scale of this is hard to wrap your head around. Turkey says more than 13.5 million people affected by the quake, and that doesn't include the millions more in Syria. That's a huge number of people. Where are the displaced going?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, and you mentioned that there are millions more in northern Syria, and that's a region that's already been devastated by a civil war, refugee crisis and where most rescue teams can't even access. Turkey's emergency management agency says nearly 400,000 people have taken refuge in government shelters or hotels. Others are living in stadiums, mosques. At least 6,000 buildings in Turkey collapsed. And even for those whose homes are still standing, they don't want to go back because there have been hundreds of aftershocks, some of them big enough to topple more buildings. There are many people sleeping in cars, even trains. But across the border in Syria, the situation is in some ways even worse.

FADEL: Yeah, I mean, this is a place where millions of people are already displaced and receiving humanitarian aid because of the ongoing civil war in Syria, a place where infrastructure was already damaged by bombings - and now this. I mean, do they have any of what they need to deal with this natural disaster?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, for how dire it is here in Turkey, it's worse in Syria. And that's because northern Syria, near the cities of Aleppo and Idlib, you know, that were hit hard by this quake, were already under the stress of war and refugees. And because of that, there simply isn't the infrastructure there to provide emergency care, electricity, food, water. You know, they're left with nothing. You know, people are sleeping in mosques, and they don't have fuel. They don't have water. They're lacking essentials to simply survive. And the only road that U.N. - that the U.N. authorizes to carry supplies from Turkey to Syria has been damaged by this quake. Syria's government has blamed western sanctions for hampering relief efforts. The U.S. has pushed back, saying that sanctions do not include humanitarian assistance. Other countries are trying to help. But, you know, these are opposition-held areas. And so the government is sort of hampered in how it can help, too. So it's really a difficult situation for everyone right now.

FADEL: NPR's Rob Schmitz in Istanbul. Thank you so much.

SCHMITZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.