Paint and tears: Northwest Syria commemorates 2023 earthquakes

An exhibition commemorating the disaster remembers heroes, losses and pain.

Salam Al-Hamid, a graffiti artist, draws members of the Civil Defense rescuing a girl from under the rubble of the earthquake on a destroyed wall in the town of Al-Malind in the Idlib countryside
Salam al-Hamid, a graffiti artist, draws members of the Syrian Civil Defence rescuing a girl from rubble on a damaged wall in the town of Al-Malind in the Idlib countryside [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

Jindires, northwest Syria – On the night of February 5, people across northwest Syria stayed up all night, till 4:30am, before they could close their eyes and sleep, reassured that the anniversary of last year’s earthquakes had passed without somehow triggering another devastating quake.

The caution was not based on a scientific warning but rather a fear that the disaster that killed and injured thousands of people and continues to displace tens of thousands more would somehow recur.

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From the north of Aleppo province to western and southern Idlib, the effects of the earthquakes are still visible in cracked buildings and camps filled with tents of the people who lost their homes amid war, poverty and declining humanitarian aid.

Only the rubble has been cleared from the streets.

Jindires, one year on

Early in the morning on February 6, people began to gather in a gallery on the outskirts of Jindires, one of the worst-hit areas, among them were many members of the White Helmets, otherwise known as Syria Civil Defence, who had worked tirelessly to rescue people from the earthquakes’ destruction.

Syrian Civil Defense Director Raed Al-Saleh speaks during the commemoration of the first anniversary of the earthquake that struck northwestern Syria
Syria Civil Defence Director Raed al-Saleh speaks on the first anniversary of the earthquakes [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

They were there to mark the first anniversary of the earthquakes with a public event and exhibition.

They spoke to the press about what the earthquakes did to an area whose infrastructure was already decimated by years of war and where a severe shortage of emergency equipment had hampered the emergency response.

“There was a lack of machinery, and there were no international teams or immediate aid to help us respond to the disaster,” White Helmets media official Hamid Qatini told Al Jazeera.

Even though they deployed all their available equipment, they still did not have enough to cover the widespread destruction, Qatini added. The long delay in getting any aid into northwest Syria caused even more hardship to an already traumatised population.

Images of loss

As soon as Fatima Hamoudi entered the exhibition, her tears began to flow. The 50-year-old woman lost her son, Muhammad, his wife and his daughter during the earthquakes. His five-year-old son, also named Muhammad, was the only survivor.

A drawing expressing the suffering of the people of northern Syria due to the earthquake disaster
A painting depicts the suffering of the people of northern Syria due to the earthquakes [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

“I knew that I had lost him as soon as I heard about the earthquake,” said Hamoudi, who had been in Turkey at the time and had talked to her son on the phone the previous evening.

As soon as she heard about the quake, she tried in vain to communicate with the family.

“He was under the rubble for a whole day,” Hamoudi said, noting that she was unable to say goodbye to him and that it took six months for her to return to Syria, where she lives today, to take care of her grandson.

Hamoudi toured the exhibition, looking sadly at the images of the destruction.

Next to paintings representing the work of the White Helmets stood the painter, Gulstan Bouzou, who said her paintings express gratitude.

“I tried to add hope in my drawings,” she said.

She had been in nearby Afrin city when the quakes hit, and over the past months, she has used her art to help those affected and has taught drawing and music to children orphaned in the disaster.

Visitors view models of the earthquake disaster during an exhibition commemorating its first anniversary in the city of Jenderes in the northern countryside of Aleppo
Visitors view a map and documents about the disaster during the exhibition [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

“We’re still working on starting other educational projects during the coming months,” Bouzou said.

“I want to revive hope and tell survivors that overcoming disaster is possible.”

Murals on destroyed walls

About an hour’s drive away from Jindires, in Maland, west of Idlib, there are also artistic commemorations of what hit the region a year ago.

But here, the colours are splashed onto the damaged walls that remain standing, perhaps as a message of hope.

“The earthquake left a huge trauma,” graffiti artist Salam al-Hamed told Al Jazeera. “We haven’t forgotten what happened yet.”

Over the past few days, al-Hamed and her fellow painters in the Brush of Hope group visited several of the worst-affected cities and towns in the countryside of Idlib province.

They painted murals depicting the disaster and the White Helmets rescuing people trapped under the rubble.

A mural showing civil defense teams (White Helmets) rescuing a girl from under the rubble after the earthquake in northwestern Syria.
A mural shows the White Helmets rescuing a girl from under the rubble after the 2023 quakes in northwestern Syria [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

“Our drawings were related to the suffering and pain of people, especially those who were stuck under the rubble and were praying for life but were buried and dead while waiting for help,” al-Hamed said, referring to more than 4,500 people killed by the earthquakes.

“Other murals are about resilience, patience and loss.”

Destruction, death and damage are things the people of the northwest, the last area in Syria controlled by opposition forces, are accustomed to after 13 years of war and continuous bombing by government forces and their ally Russia.

But the earthquakes were nothing like any other disaster experienced in Syria’s modern history, leaving shock and fear so deep that it remains with them today.

Source: Al Jazeera