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The true champions of humanity in Turkiye and Syria deserve our thanks

A 66 year-old man rescued from rubble 103 hours after earthquakes in Turkiye
66 year-old Murat Vural is being rescued under rubbles of a collapsed building 103 hours after 7.7 and 7.6 magnitude earthquakes hit Turkiye’s Gaziantep [ Adsız Günebakan - Anadolu Agency ]

A funeral was held in the north Syrian town of Jinderis on 7 February. It was one of numerous such funerals to be held that day across Syria and Turkiye, following devastating earthquakes which killed and injured tens of thousands of people. Each one of these funerals represented two seemingly opposite notions: collective grief and collective hope. The Jinderis funeral was a stark representation of this dichotomy.

Earlier, rescue workers had found a baby in the rubble of a destroyed home. She was still connected by her umbilical cord to her mother. Rescuers cut the cord quickly and rushed the baby to the hospital. Her entire family perished.

Chants of "Allahu Akbar" ("God is Great") echoed across Syria and Turkiye throughout the desperate days of searching for survivors. Every time a person was found alive, or hanging on to life, the rescue workers, medics and volunteers would chant the same words with increasingly hoarse voices. For them — in fact, for everyone — it is a constant reminder that there is something in this life that is bigger than all of us.

The heart-wrenching, incredibly sad and yet inspiring stories that emerged from the rubble of the 7.8-magnitude initial quake were as many as the dead and the wounded. Long after the dead are buried and the injured are healed, these stories will not only serve as a reminder of how vulnerable human beings are, but also how stubborn and inspirational we can be.

Consider, for example, little Turkish boy Yigit Cakmark who emerged alive from beneath the rubble in the city of Hatay and was reunited with his mother atop the wreckage of their destroyed home. The image of them clinging onto one another after 52 hours of anguish cannot be described in words. Their unbreakable bond is the essence of life itself.

Turkiye earthquake: Rescuer adopts cat he pulled from rubble

A little Syrian girl actually smiled as she was being pulled out through the crushed concrete. Many rescued children smiled, happy to be alive or out of gratitude to their rescuers, but this girl smiled because she saw her father, who also survived.

Heroism is one of the most subjective terms in any language. For these children, and for the thousands of other survivors rescued from the rubble, the true heroes are those who saved their lives and the lives of their loved ones.

It is sad that we often ascribe heroism to war, and rarely for the right reasons. I have spent much of my life writing about or reporting on war, only to discover that there is little that is truly heroic about it, from the moment weapons are manufactured, shipped, deployed and used. The only heroism I found was when people fought back collectively to protect one another: when the bodies are pulled from the wreckage, for example; when the wounded are rushed to hospitals; when blood is donated; when solidarity is offered to the families of the victims; and when people share their meagre supplies with fellow survivors.

Rescue team members try to warm up around fire as search and rescue efforts continue in collapsed buildings after 7.7 and 7.6 magnitude earthquakes hit multiple provinces of Turkiye including Malatya on February 13, 2023 [Muhittin Sandıkçı/Mert Türker]

Rescue team members try to warm up around fire as search and rescue efforts continue in collapsed buildings after 7.7 and 7.6 magnitude earthquakes hit multiple provinces of Turkiye [Muhittin Sandıkçı/Mert Türker]

This is the kind of heroism that is on full display in Turkiye and Syria. The typical rescue site is a tapestry of human tenacity, love, family, friendship and more: The victims beneath the rubble, praying and pleading for rescue; the men and women above, fighting against time, the elements and the lack of means to get them out.

Whenever a hand or a foot emerges from beneath the dust and debris, the rescue workers and medics rush to see if there is a pulse, however faint. If there is, no gender matters; no religion; no sect; no language; no colour; no status; no age, nothing but the shared desire to save a single life.

Such tragic events could take place in Turkiye, Syria, Italy, Algeria, Japan or anywhere else. The rescuers and the rescued can be of any race, religion or nationality. Yet, somehow, all our differences, real or imagined, all of our conflicting ideologies and political orientations do not — and should not — matter in the slightest during these harrowing moments.

Sadly, after the wounded are rescued, the dead are buried and the debris is removed, we tend to forget all of this, the same way that we are slowly forgetting our rescuers, saviours and heroes of the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead of investing more in the structures, technologies and resources that save lives, we often do the exact opposite.

Although Covid-19 continues to kill people in large numbers, many governments have simply decided to move on to seemingly more urgent matters: war, geopolitical conflicts and, as expected, greater investment in new, even deadlier weapons. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), world military expenditure passed $2 trillion for the first time in 2022. Just imagine if that money had instead been used to help, heal and rescue those fighting poverty, disease or natural disasters.

Our lack of a true sense of priorities is quite astonishing. While munitions are delivered to war-torn countries at incredible speed, it takes days, weeks and months for help to arrive to victims of hurricanes and earthquakes. Sometimes, help never arrives.

The chances are that our confused priorities will not change, at least not fundamentally, following the Kahramanmaras earthquake. Nevertheless, it is important to reiterate this time-honoured truth: heroes are those who save lives and offer their love and support to those in need, regardless of race, colour, religion or politics. To the true champions of our humanity, therefore, we offer our thanks.

READ: Continuum of displacement

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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ArticleEurope & RussiaMiddle EastOpinionSyriaTurkey
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