On February 7, a funeral was held in the northern Syrian town of Jinderis. It was one of numerous such funerals to be held on that day across Syria and Türkiye, following a devastating earthquake that killed and injured thousands.
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 found a baby in the rubble of a destroyed home. Her umbilical cord was still connected to her mother. Quickly, they cut the cord and rushed the baby to the hospital. The entire family, save the newborn, perished.
Chants of ‘Allah Akbar’ – God is Great – echoed across Syria and Türkiye throughout the days of desperate search. Every time a person is found alive, or hanging to his life, the rescue workers, the medics, and the volunteers would chant the same words with voices gone hoarse. For them – in fact, for all of us – it is a constant reminder that there is something in this life that is bigger than all of us.
The heart-wrenching, sorrowful but also inspiring stories that emerged from the rubble of the 7.8-magnitude quake were as many as the dead and the wounded. Long after the dead are buried and the injured are healed, these stories will serve as a reminder of how vulnerable our human race is, but also how stubborn and inspiring it can be.
The little Turkish boy, Yigit Cakmark who emerged alive from underneath the rubble of his collapsed home in the city of Hatay was reunited with his mother atop the wreckage of their destroyed home. The image of them clinging onto one another after 52 hours of search cannot be described in words. Their unbreakable bond is the essence of life itself.
Another little Syrian girl actually smiled as she was being pulled out through the crushed concrete. Many rescued children smiled, happy to be alive or in gratitude to their rescuers, but this girl smiled because she saw her father, also alive.
Heroism is one of the most subjective terms in any language. For these little children, and for the thousands of rescued victims of the earthquake, true heroes are those who save their lives and the lives of their loved ones.
It is sad that, quite often, we ascribe heroism to war, and rarely for the right reasons. I have spent much of my life living, writing about or reporting on war, only to discover that there is little heroism in war, from the moment weapons are manufactured, shipped, deployed or used. The only heroism I found in war is when people collectively fight back to protect one another; when the bodies are pulled from the wreckage; 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 meager supplies to survive together.
This same heroism is on full display in Türkiye and Syria. The typical rescue site is a tapestry of human tenacity, love, family, friendship and more: The victims underneath the rubble, praying and pleading for rescue; the men and women above, fighting against time, the elements, and the lack of means.
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. Then, no gender matters; no religion; no sect; no language; no color; no status; no age, nothing but the shared desire to save a single life.
Such tragic events could take place in Türkiye, 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 least during these harrowing moments.
Sadly, soon after the wounded are rescued, the dead are buried and the debris is removed, we tend to forget all of this, the same way we are slowly forgetting our rescuers and saviors during the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead of investing more in the structures, technologies and resources that save lives, we often do the exact opposite.
Though the pandemic continues to kill people in large numbers, many governments have simply decided to move on, to seemingly more urgent matters: war, geopolitical conflicts and, expectedly, more investments in new, 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 the increase in military spending alone was 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.
Chances are our confused priorities will not change, at least not fundamentally, following the Kahramanmaras earthquake. But it is important to reiterate this time-honored truth: heroes are those who save lives and offer their love and support to those in need, regardless of race, color, religion or politics.
To our true champions of humanity, we thank you.