‘It was like Armageddon’

One year on: relief workers’ accounts of the Türkiye-Syria earthquake

Wired and shredded reinforcement bars once used as the framework of the building embraced by large collapsed concrete blocks, rest on the street (blocking off the road) across from nearby residential buildings in the Azizieh District, Aleppo, Syria on the 3rd of March 2023.

It was a once in a generation event. On 6th February 2023 at 4:17am, on a bitterly cold winter night, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit south-eastern Türkiye and northern Syria, followed by another almost as large a few hours later. The largest to hit the region for 84 years, it’s estimated that the quakes and their aftershocks claimed over 55,000 lives, injured many more and left millions homeless.

Medair’s emergency response team deployed the next morning to Türkiye, where the brunt of the impact left 313,000 buildings destroyed. They arrived to a country reeling.

‘I remember the smells. The dust was still hanging in the air when we arrived, and there was smoke rising. You could feel the panic,’ recalls Emergency Response Officer Damon Elsworth of their arrival in Antakya. ‘It’s a city of 350,000 people – the ancient city of Antioch – and there were hardly any buildings left standing.’

‘There were blue lights and sirens everywhere, and the noises of search and rescue crews with cranes and excavators. And then there were whistles and suddenly it would all stop and you could hear a pin drop, as everyone within earshot had to be silent when they started using the listening equipment to hear the calls coming from under the rubble.’

‘I’ve never seen so much devastation outside of a war zone,’ says fellow Emergency Response Officer Rebekah Rice. ‘It was like Armageddon. People were still walking around in pyjamas days later, because they were asleep when it happened and all their clothes were lost under the rubble. We drove past houses on their sides, with beds hanging out of the window, fridges, washing machines. The hardest thing to see was people huddled around fires near the rescue teams, waiting for news of loved ones.’

‘The scale of this natural disaster is still hard to comprehend,’ says Head of the Global Emergency Response Team, James McDowell. ‘There was instantaneous damage to an area the size of Germany. It was the fifth deadliest earthquake this century and the deadliest earthquake in modern-day Türkiye since 526 AD.’

With few safe shelter options, the team slept in a van for the first few nights. ‘It wasn’t the most comfortable!’ says Rebekah. ‘But I still felt privileged, as I knew I was warmer than the people around us in tents outside. At one point it dropped to minus seven degrees.’ Damon explains: ‘we wanted to come ready to work, so we decided to rent two vans that we could use as both our accommodation and to carry in supplies for immediate distribution. We were then able to split up to reach different locations. One team went straight up into the mountains to a community of more than 100,000 people under the snow in makeshift settlements. Thankfully we were quickly able to buy stoves and tents and blankets to distribute to them with partners. Meanwhile in Antakya we were able to start distributing hygiene kits.’

But delivering supplies was a complex task with so much of the infrastructure destroyed. ‘In the first week or so many of the roads were obstructed. There were big, big cracks in the tarmac, and most of the streets were blocked by rubble with only narrow alleyways through.

‘A professional articulated truck driver volunteered to work with us. Talk about a miracle! Because it required some serious technical driving to weave through the debris. The second evening he suggested we drive to a city a few hours away where we could procure supplies for distributing the next day. We looked at each other and there was an alignment of motivations and compassion.

‘It just felt wrong to go to bed with all the needs around us. So we drove through the night and loaded up at first light when the shops opened. We bought as much as we could load – soaps, women’s hygiene supplies, sanitary items, toilet paper, wet wipes, tons of sleeping bags, as many tents as we could find. And then we were back in Antakya distributing by lunch the following day. When the mothers came lining up with their children it was so great to be able to give them the stuff they needed.’

Along with the distribution of items including blankets, tarpaulins, tents, stoves, torches, and hygiene supplies to 15,000 people, the team also set up psychological first aid sessions. ‘The trauma was so clear,’ says Damon. ‘No one was spared – everyone had lost someone, everyone had a big story. Even the people who were least affected had their kids wetting the bed in terror at night, huge cracks in their houses. The partners and volunteers we worked alongside were just as traumatized as everyone else, so we did the sessions with them first.’

In the months since the emergency phase, Medair has continued working with local partners to provide mental health support, cash assistance, and the construction of temporary homes. Those being served include many of Türkiye’s large population of Syrian refugees.

In Syria, where Medair has already been active for almost a decade, staff felt the earthquake from as far away as Damascus. ‘Within 24 hours we had a surge team in Aleppo and were distributing items within two days,’ says Raija-Liisa Schmidt-Teigen, Country Director. ‘We increased our Aleppo team from 3 to 18 people within the first month, and international and regional staff also flew in to join the response.

‘Here, it’s a crisis on a crisis. 15.3 million people were relying on humanitarian assistance in Syria before the earthquakes hit, with 90% of Syrians already living below the poverty line. People’s coping capacity has been stripped away by previous conflict, a collapsed economy and almost non-existent infrastructure. Then you add a major natural disaster on top of a man-made one – now people have to choose whether to feed their children or repair their cracked homes.’

The team provided hygiene kits to 30,000 people in the first month, alongside winter supplies, cash for home repairs, water trucking, community water tanks, and repairing water networks serving 215,000 people in Aleppo. They have replaced damaged medical equipment and carried out repairs such as replacing doors and windows in affected clinics in Latakia, and have set up extended opening hours for healthcare services in the region. They are also providing home repairs for families needing disability access or with other specialized needs.

‘This was one disaster spread across two countries, each with very different contexts,’ explains James. ‘It’s been a complex response. I’m proud that we were able to act with speed to reach the affected population quickly, including those that had not received other assistance, and that we could adapt our response according to the tangible needs on the ground. As always in these situations, having emergency funds available when and where the needs arose was critical in allowing us to respond quickly and in a flexible way.

‘This has been a time of massive loss in Türkiye and Syria, and the scars will remain for years to come. There’s a long road to recovery, and our work is still continuing. But we are grateful that we have been able to accompany hundreds of thousands of survivors with life-saving support in a time of great need.’



Medair services in [response to the Turkiye-Syria eairthquake are funded by institutional donors including Swiss Solidarity, ECHO, DEC via Tearfund UK, and SDC, along with private donors. 

This content was produced with resources gathered by Medair field and headquarters staff. The views expressed herein are those solely of Medair and should not be taken, in any way, to reflect the official opinion of any other organisation.