If a normal picture is worth 1,000 words, the photos coming out of southeastern Turkey and northern Syria after the 7.8-magnitude earthquake Feb. 6 were worth that, and then some.
Thousands of buildings reduced to piles of rubble and debris -- hotels, residential buildings, historical sites, now unrecognizable. People, shell-shocked, standing in a semicircle watching as rescuers searched for loved ones. A man, still trapped, lying next to his unresponsive wife. Destroyed homes; caved-in churches; upended livelihoods; families with nowhere to go. The injured on stretchers; the dead, wrapped in cloth and tenderly carried in arms or laid to rest. And tears. So many tears.
These images will become our collective memory of the February 2023 quake that claimed the lives of more than 35,000 people -- a number that increases every day. And they are tough to take in.
While the majority of the deaths were recorded in Turkey, the earthquake was especially crippling in Syria where, unlike NATO ally Turkey, international aid was limited as a result of the politics surrounding the longstanding civil war. A CNN report Feb. 13 presented more devastating images, much of which included children, of the aftermath of the quake in Syria. People sitting on the streets with nowhere to go. Hospitals at capacity, lacking basic supplies that could have enabled them to save more victims. Poverty, isolation. “Death follows Syrians,” said one woman interviewed for the story. Another wished she, like friends and family, had died in the quake, so as to avoid the misery she and her loved ones are now facing. We must pray for these beloved of God. We must not forget about them.
There is, however, another side to the story, as there always is in this grace-filled world that is made up of a decent amount of good people. There is the side of recovery, of hope, of life. In these moments were made images that radiated joy: a small boy drinking water out of a bottle cap, mid-rescue; survivors being welcomed to temporary shelters; volunteers hugging one another. These are signs of hope amid the horror; of the gratitude for the gift of another day.
The best of these images came courtesy several videos of dramatic rescues by a group in Syria called the “White Helmets,” an organization of more than 3,000 “normal” men born in wartime to deliver humanitarian aid to those in need. (A short documentary was made on this group in 2016, which is streaming now on Netflix.)
One video, shared on social media, witnessed these remarkable men lifting a family out from the rubble -- one after the other, still living -- to great rejoicing. Cheers and joyful cries exploded from the White Helmets and those who were assisting them. In the great relief and gratitude expressed at the rescue of each human being, you could feel the immense value of each human life that had been saved.
Another video captured the rescue of a little boy who couldn’t have been more than 2 or 3 years old. Caught underneath the rubble for two days, the little boy smiled and smacked and grabbed the faces of his rescuers as he was lifted up to shouts of joy. It was as if he was saying: “You did it! You got me! I knew you would!” I dare anyone to watch it and not be reduced to tears, as this maternal heart certainly was.
There is so much tragedy in the world -- so much loss. And there are so many times when human life is completely disregarded, without thought of its value or its preciousness. We see this in the slaying of three students -- and the injuring of five more -- on the campus of Michigan State University Feb. 13. We see it in the horrors of clergy sexual abuse in yet another report issued from yet another country, this time Portugal. We see it in the laws that national and state politicians are pushing to keep abortion legal and as available as possible, even in a country whose highest court has found it to be unconstitutional at the federal level.
Every life is precious. Every life has value. We mourn the loss of the tens of thousands of lives in Turkey and Syria after this horrific earthquake, and we rejoice in the same spirit of the rescuers for each one who was saved.
Gretchen Crowe is editor-in-chief for OSV News.