Middle EastWorld

Insulated from war, quake brings ‘first catastrophe’ to Syria city

Jableh: Syria’s coastal city of Jableh, a regime heartland, was largely spared the worst of war but a massive quake has now joined it in misery with the rest of the battle-scarred country.

With flattened buildings, civilians trapped under rubble and residents forced to flee their homes, Jableh is no longer sheltered from the kind of devastation that has long plagued neighbouring regions.

“It’s the first catastrophe of its kind in Jableh,” said Abdulhadi al-Ajji. “I am 52 years old and I have never gone through anything like this in my life.”

The father of four, whose cracked cinderblock home overlooks a building in ruins, said his city had always been a safe haven even at the height of Syria’s nearly 12-year war.

When rebels expanded their foothold across the country, Jableh sent men to fight, but never saw major battle on its own soil.

“Even my mother who is 80 years old told me nothing like this has ever happened here,” said Ajji, a carpenter.

Jableh is located in Latakia, a province largely under government control and one of the worst impacted by the tremor.

Monday’s 7.8-magnitude quake that struck near the Turkish city of Gaziantep, about 40 kilometres (25 miles) from the Syrian border, killed more than 24,000 people, including at least 3,553 in Syria.

In Latakia province alone, the quake killed at least 623 people, and the death toll continues to mount minute by minute, according to Alaa Moubarak, head of Jableh’s civil defence.

– ‘Nowhere to go’ –

Jableh’s residential neighbourhoods have long been dilapidated, though they have been spared the scars emblematic of the country’s years of battle.

But more than 50 apartment blocks in the city and its environs have completely collapsed because of the quake, and at least 50 others are at risk of falling, Moubarak said.

An estimated 4,000 to 5,000 residents have been forced from their homes, taking shelter in mosques, hospitals and the city’s stadium, he added.

On Friday, a rescue force from the United Arab Emirates operated on a completely flattened building that initially split in half when the quake hit.

The first section fell immediately, with the remaining part following shortly after. At least 15 people were killed.

Imad al-Daou barely made it out alive with his wife and two children when the floor crumbled beneath their feet.

“This is the first catastrophe of its kind that I ever experienced in my life,” said the 42-year-old merchant.

“They had to pull me out using an excavator.”

Jableh is part of a Syrian coastal region that includes the government strongholds of Latakia and Tartus — too, largely spared the impact of the conflict.

The area is known as a recruiting ground for President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, with much of his military hailing from the area.

Assad’s Russian allies also have major stakes in the region. The Russian airbase in Hmeimim is five kilometres (three miles) from Jableh, and the naval port of Tartus lies roughly 60 kilometres to the south.

– ‘Tent on the street’ –

Syria’s war, which started in 2011 with a brutal crackdown on anti-regime protests, has killed nearly half a million people and has forced at least half of the country’s pre-war population from their homes.

The vast majority of the country has seen major population movement due to fighting.

But the residents of Jableh were not forced to flee their homes until the quake hit.

In the city’s Al-Fayed neighbourhood, dozens of evacuees huddled in a mosque-turned-shelter waiting to hear if their homes are safe for return.

With nowhere else to go, they have been living there for five days, barely able to afford food, let alone temporary accommodation.

“I’ll pitch a tent on the street” if I can’t go back home, said Fatima Hammoud.

The 42-year-old mother of three fled her damaged home with her husband and children on Monday, fearing the roof would cave in over their heads.

“I can’t sleep. Anytime I feel a minor movement I remember all the shaking,” she said.

Sprawled on the floor nearby, Halima al-Aswad also said she has been stalked by dread since the disaster.

“Where will I go? The only safe place is the mosque,” the mother of three said, fighting back tears.

“Wherever is safe, I will go there.”

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