Aisha Harbalieh is a midwife working with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Azaz, northwest Syria. She shares her experience in the aftermath of the earthquakes.
“When the earthquake struck at 4.17 am, my family and I were asleep. We felt the building shaking above us. We live in a five-storey building – we felt it shaking above our heads.
At first, we didn’t know what was happening, but after about 10 seconds we realised it was an earthquake. I yelled at my husband to get our two-year-old daughter Lareen. He held her close to him. Our two other children were in their bedroom. I ran to wake them up. 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. Everyone was throwing their kids to safety. We caught them and helped them out of the building.
Outside, we looked around in complete shock. Our tears were mixed with blood. We didn’t understand what was happening.
I realised I should be saving people. Some people had stayed in their buildings, others might have had their homes collapse over their heads.
I ran into the street, barefoot. My husband was shouting at me to come back, ‘Aisha, where are you going? Come back here!’
I refused. I couldn’t stand still when so many people needed help. ‘There might be people trapped under the rubble,’ I called back. ‘I’m a medic so I need to help.’
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.
Our neighbours on the upper floors threw their kids down for us to catch them. Everyone was throwing their kids to safety.Aisha, MSF midwife supervisor in northwest Syria
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 support them. People rescued from under the rubble were arriving at hospitals, which were soon overwhelmed.
My children encouraged me to go. My son said, ‘Mama, go help people. Don’t stay here!’ This gave me the strength to leave my children and go.
I got in the car and headed to the hospital that was most in need of medics. I arrived at the emergency room and started working [as a volunteer].
At 1.24 pm we felt the massive aftershock. The hospital building is made of metal panels. It could have collapsed at any moment. The injured rushed to get out of the hospital. Everyone was running for their lives. I saw a pregnant woman who was about to give birth helped out of the building.
We received more than 50 injured people who arrived at the hospital from all regions. All four operating theatres were at full capacity. The rooms were covered in blood. The surgeons were performing osteotomies [bone-cutting procedures] and laparoscopies [abdominal surgery].
There was a huge shortage of equipment and the surgeons couldn’t carry out all the operations required – they had to refer patients to other hospitals.
There was also a huge shortage of coffins and body bags. The number of dead bodies was huge: women, children, elderly people.
Everyone was running for their lives. I saw a pregnant woman who was about to give birth helped out of the building.Aisha, MSF midwife supervisor in northwest Syria
One man had witnessed 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 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.
At midnight, there was a call for an orthopaedic surgeon [bone specialist] to amputate the foot of a girl who was trapped under the rubble. They needed a doctor and an anaesthetist to perform the amputation. Along with other medics, they headed to rescue her from under the rubble. The girl was crying, ‘Don’t worry about my foot, save me without my foot – just get me out of here. It’s dark and I’m scared!’
The scene was horrifying. Everyone was saying it felt like the end of the world.”
In northwest Syria, MSF is currently supporting seven hospitals including a burns unit, in addition to 12 general healthcare centres and three ambulances for referrals. In addition, we support 11 mobile clinics serving displaced people in camps. We also run water, sanitation and hygiene activities in close to 100 camps across the northwest.