Survivors scream as desperate rescuers work in Turkey, Syria
By Mehmet Guzel And Zeynep Bilginsoy in Adana
ADANA, Turkey (AP) — Rescuers called out, “Slowly, slowly,” as they lifted a man inch by inch from between slabs of collapsed concrete Monday in the Turkish province that was the epicenter of a devastating earthquake.
His neck in a brace, the barefoot man was carried on a stretcher as he emerged. Rescuers in Pazarcik in the province of Kahramanmaras held him aloft and ran off with him.
It was among numerous rescue efforts that unfolded as darkness, rain and cold enveloped the region of Turkey and Syria that was rocked by a powerful 7.8 magnitude earthquake. Hours later, a 7.5 magnitude temblor struck more than 100 kilometers (60 miles) away. At least 3,400 people were killed, and civilians joined rescuers in desperate efforts across Turkey and Syria.
“Can anyone hear me?” rescuers shouted. In some places around southeast Turkey, survivors could be heard screaming from beneath collapsed buildings.
People crouched to look below a massive sheet of concrete propped at an angle by steel bars. They crawled in and out, trying to reach survivors. Excavating equipment dug through the rubble below.
Elsewhere in Kahramanmaras province, rescuers pulled two children alive from the rubble. One lay on a stretcher on the snowy ground. Rescuers quieted the throngs of people trying to help so they could hear survivors and find them.
Some emerged safely then waited to hear any word on relatives.
“My two grandchildren, my daughter-in-law, are all inside. They haven’t come out,” said Hasan Birbalta while waiting near a collapsed building in Pazarcik, adding the granddaughter is 2 and the grandson is 6.
Thousands of search-and-rescue personnel, firefighters and medics were working across 10 provinces, along with some 3,500 soldiers. Residents lifted rubble and unearthed people heard screaming from beneath buildings. Aftershocks made rescue efforts more dangerous.
In Adana, about 20 people, some in emergency rescue jackets, used power saws atop the concrete mountain of a collapsed building to carve out space that would let any survivors climb out or be rescued. Later, excavators joined the efforts as bright spotlights illuminated the wreckage.
Turkish military ambulance planes were transporting the injured to Istanbul and Ankara hospitals, the defense ministry said. Rescuers from across Turkey tried to make it to the provinces amid heavy snow and rain.
At a news conference late Monday, four ministers said that because Hatay’s airport had been severely damaged, they had to fly into Adana nearly three hours away.
In Syria, a man held a dead girl in his arms beside a two-story collapsed concrete building as he walked away from the debris. He and a woman set the girl on the floor under covering to protect her from the rain, wrapping her in a large blanket and looking back to the building, overwhelmed.
An official with Turkey’s disaster management authority said 7,840 people had been rescued across 10 provinces. The official, Orhan Tatar, said 5,606 buildings had collapsed.
Tatar said the total area affected was large and places were hard to reach, but that as of late Monday, teams had been directed to all collapsed buildings.
Bilginsoy reported from Istanbul. Associated Press writer Carley Petesch in Chicago contributed.
Veterans testify of ‘catastrophic’ impact of Afghan collapse
Marine Sgt. Tyler Vargas-Andrews, who was gravely injured, losing an arm and a leg in a suicide attack at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, becomes emotional as he recounts his story during a House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing on the United States evacuation from Afghanistan on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 8, 2023. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
By Farnoush Amiri And Ellen Knickmeyer in Washington
WASHINGTON (AP) — Active-service members and veterans provided first-hand testimony Wednesday about the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, describing in harrowing detail the carnage and death they witnessed on the ground while imploring Congress to help the allies left behind.
Former Marine Sgt. Tyler Vargas-Andrews testified to Congress about the stench of human flesh under a large plume of smoke as the screams of children, women and men filled the space around Kabul’s airport after two suicide bombers attacked crowds of Afghans.
“I see the faces of all of those we could not save, those we left behind,” said Vargas-Andrews, who wore a prosthetic arm and scars of his own grave wounds from the bombing. “The withdrawal was a catastrophe in my opinion. And there was an inexcusable lack of accountability …”
The initial hearing of a long-promised investigation by House Republicans displayed the open wounds from the end of America’s longest war in August 2021, with witnesses recalling how they saw mothers carrying dead babies and the Taliban shooting and brutally beating people.
It was the first of what is expected to be a series of Republican-led hearings examining the Biden administration’s handling of the withdrawal. Taliban forces seized the Afghan capital, Kabul, far more rapidly than U.S. intelligence had foreseen as American forces pulled out. Kabul’s fall turned the West’s withdrawal into a rout, with Kabul’s airport the center of a desperate air evacuation guarded by U.S. forces temporarily deployed for the task.
The majority of witnesses argued to Congress that the fall of Kabul was an American failure with blame touching every presidential administration from George W. Bush to Joe Biden. Testimony focused not on the decision to withdraw, but on what witnesses depicted as a desperate attempt to rescue American citizens and Afghan allies with little U.S. planning and inadequate U.S. support.
“America is building a nasty reputation for multi-generational systemic abandonment of our allies where we leave a smoldering human refuge from the mountain yards of Vietnam to the Kurds in Syria,” retired Lt. Col. Scott Mann testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
He added, “Our veterans know something else that this committee might do well to consider: We might be done with Afghanistan, but it’s not done with us.”
Vargas-Andrews sobbed as he told lawmakers of being thwarted in an attempt to stop the single deadliest moment in the U.S. evacuation — a suicide bombing that killed 170 Afghans and 13 U.S. servicemen and women.
Vargas-Andrews said Marines and others aiding in the evacuation operation were given descriptions of men believed to be plotting an attack before it occurred. He said he and others spotted two men matching the descriptions and behaving suspiciously, and eventually had them in their rifle scopes, but never received a response about whether to take action.
“No one was held accountable,” Vargas-Andrew told Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, the chairman of the committee. “No one was, and no one is, to this day.”
U.S. Central Command’s investigation concluded in October 2021 that given the worsening security situation at Abbey Gate as Afghans became increasingly desperate to flee, “the attack was not preventable at the tactical level without degrading the mission to maximize the number of evacuees.” However, that investigation did not look into whether the bomber could have been stopped or whether Marines on the ground had the appropriate authorities to engage.
McCaul has been deeply critical of the Biden administration’s handling of the withdrawal. “What happened in Afghanistan was a systemic breakdown of the federal government at every level, and a stunning failure of leadership by the Biden administration,” he said.
Last month, U.S. Inspector-General for Afghanistan John Sopko concluded again that actions taken by both the Trump and Biden administrations were key to the sudden collapse of the Afghan government and military, even before U.S. forces completed their withdrawal in August 2021.
That includes President Donald Trump’s one-sided withdrawal deal with the Taliban, and the abruptness of Biden’s withdrawal of both U.S. contractors and troops from Afghanistan, stranding an Afghan air force that previous administrations had failed to make self-supporting.
The report blamed each U.S. administration since American forces invaded in 2001 for constantly changing, inconsistent policies that strived for quick fixes and withdrawal from Afghanistan rather than a steady effort to build a capable, sustainable Afghan military.
The witnesses testifying Wednesday urged action to help the hundreds of thousands of Afghan allies who worked alongside U.S. soldiers and who are now in limbo in the U.S. and back in Afghanistan.
“If I leave this committee with only one thought it’s this: It’s not too late,” said Peter Lucier, a Marine veteran who now works at Team America Relief, which has assisted thousands of Afghans in relocating. “We’re going to talk a lot today about all the mistakes that were made, leading up to that day, but urgent action right now will save so many lives.”
One of those solutions discussed Wednesday would be creating a pathway to citizenship for the nearly 76,000 Afghans who worked with American soldiers since 2001 as translators, interpreters and partners. Those people arrived in the U.S. on military planes after the withdrawal and the government admitted the refugees on a temporary parole status as part of Operation Allies Welcome, the largest resettlement effort in the country in decades, with the promise of a path to a life in the U.S. for their service.
Congress began a bipartisan effort to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act, which would have prevented Afghans from becoming stranded without legal residency status when their two years of humanitarian parole expire in August. The proposal would have enabled qualified Afghans to apply for U.S. citizenship, as was done for refugees in the past, including those from Cuba, Vietnam and Iraq.
But that effort stalled in the Senate late last year due to opposition from Republicans.
“If we don’t set politics aside and pursue accountability and lessons learned to address this grievous moral injury on our military community and right the wrongs that have been inflicted on our most at-risk Afghan allies, this colossal foreign policy will follow us home and ultimately draw us right back into the graveyard of empires where it all started,” Mann, the retired green beret, said to lawmakers.
Associated Press reporter Tara Copp contributed to this report.
A month after quake, survivors need shelter, sanitation
Members of a family keep warm next to a fire as they follow a rescue team searching for their relatives among destroyed building in Antakya, southern Turkey, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023. One month after a powerful quake devastated parts of Turkey and Syria, hundreds of thousands of people continue to have “extensive humanitarian needs,” including shelter and sanitation, a United Nations official said Monday, March 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco, File)
By Suzan Fraser in Ankara
ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — One month after a powerful quake devastated parts of Turkey and Syria, hundreds of thousands of people still need adequate shelter and sanitation, and an appeal for $1 billion to assist survivors is only 10% funded, hampering efforts to tackle the humanitarian crisis, a United Nations official said Monday.
The Feb. 6 earthquake and strong aftershocks have killed close to 47,000 people in Turkey, destroyed or damaged around 214,000 buildings and left hundreds of thousands of people homeless — making it the worst disaster in Turkey’s modern history. The U.N. estimates that the earthquake killed around 6,000 people in Syria, mainly in the rebel-held northwest.
About 2 million survivors have been housed in temporary accommodation or evacuated from the earthquake-devastated region, according to Turkish government figures. Around 1.5 million people have been settled in tents while another 46,000 have been moved to container houses. Others are living in dormitories and guesthouses, the government said.
“Given the number of people that have been relocated, given the number of people that have been injured and given the level of the devastation, we do have extensive humanitarian needs now,” Alvaro Rodriguez, the U.N. Resident Coordinator in Turkey, told The Associated Press.
“We have some provinces where up to 25% of the population — we’re talking sometimes half a million people — have relocated. So the challenge we have is how do we provide food, shelter, water for these communities?” he said.
The U.N. representative said tents are still needed even though they are not “the optimal solution” for sheltering people. He reported some cases of scabies outbreaks because of poor sanitary conditions.
Last month, the U.N. made a flash appeal for $397.6 million to help Syrian quake victims and $1 billion appeal for victims in Turkey to cover emergency needs, such as food, protection, education water and shelter, for three months. Rodriguez said the appeal for Turkey is only about 10 percent funded.
“The reality is that if we do not move beyond the roughly 10% that we have, the U.N. and its partners will not be able to meet the humanitarian needs,” he said.
Rodriguez added: “Turkey has been a country that has supported 4 million Syrian refugees over the last few years, and this is an opportunity for the international community to provide the support that Turkey deserves.”
The World Bank has estimated that the earthquake has caused an estimated $34.2 billion in direct physical damages – the equivalent of 4% of Turkey’s 2021 GDP. The World Bank said recovery and reconstruction costs will be much higher and that GDP losses associated to economic disruptions will also add to the cost of the earthquakes.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who faces tough presidential and parliamentary elections in May, has promised to rebuild hundreds of thousands of homes for the quake survivors within a year.
More than 1.74 million refugees lived in the 11 Turkish provinces affected by the earthquakes, according to the U.N. refugee agency. Turkey’s interior minister said 4,267 of the people killed in Turkey were Syrian nationals.
Rodriguez said that around 40,000 Syrians in Turkey have returned home to check on family or economic assets such as land or housing that may have been impacted by the earthquake there.
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