Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

Days in the Grip of the Earthquake

How hard it is to write about an earthquake! It is impossible for language to express the extent of the tragedy. No words are enough. All the flowers of the world cannot appease the gushing river of funerals and the masses of the betrayed.

How ugly is the smell of deceit! If the betrayal committed by individuals is painful, then how is it when the earth itself commits it? The earth we claim to be our mother… our source of bread… our roots… and our heritage. The land that poets never tire of praising and that soldiers die in defending. The soil in which we accept the injustice of living, in fear of the winds of alienation.

The smell of treason. Grief overwhelmed those who thought that the roofs protected them. Fear devoured those who clung to the walls for shelter. It is true that cruelty is no stranger in this painful part of the world. It is also true that death sometimes comes in the shape of a plane, a drone, or artillery shell. But the killer this time had a greater dimension, leaving fields of corpses above and below the rubble.

Cities and towns were ambushed by the dawn visitor. It is as if the earth gasped because it knew the harshness of the killer. The earth lost its balance and slipped. Ceilings conspired with walls. As if a huge knife cut through the veins of cities and villages, destroying homes and lives in a flash.

Rubble. Rubble. Rubble.

The earthquake was quick and terrible. But as it receded, it started to send aftershocks, like an old criminal who brags about the horror he committed. At first, we hoped that the losses would be low or reasonable. Then the horrific scenes started to emerge, and the numbers began to soar. The current figure is unimaginable.

The editorial meeting took place in the evening. No one argued about the headline that will occupy the front page. The earthquake imposed itself on screens and pages. But beware of putting a specific number in the headline. The murder stock exchange is on fire, operating at night at full speed…

The earthquake seized the time. Residents of the surrounding areas felt as if they were caught in its vortex, as if they heard the moaning of those who survived under the rubble of their homes.

A pained call traveled through the air. We watching as a hand emerged from under the rubble, looking for someone to grab and get it out before it was too late.

We rejoiced at a little girl who was saved from the abyss of hell, trying to forget that she would not be able to reunite with her family, who had fallen into the eternal sleep. We celebrated the rescue of an elderly man and his wife from under the rubble, and then we saw their anguish over their grandchildren, who did not survive.

The earthquake that struck parts of Türkiye and Syria turned into a catastrophe without borders. We watched with admiration the courage of those who participated in the search for survivors or to retrieve bodies. It is the courage of those who throw themselves in the most difficult circumstances to save a person from the clutches of death.

When a catastrophe strikes, the world must drop reservations and observations that are allowed in normal days. The truth is that the world was shocked and stunned, and it then moved to send aid and rescue teams. Amid the overwhelming scenes of death, how much one would have wished that human solidarity did not need an earthquake to express itself!

How difficult it is to hear that the number of victims will continue to rise! I imagine the feelings of those awaiting the fate of their loved ones. How hard it is to write that the groaning sounds have receded and that what was written has been written! I imagine the fading hope of finding survivors. I smell the tears that will flow from the eyes of their relatives and friends.

How harsh is the earthquake! Whole neighborhoods were destroyed... Buildings and balconies were scattered. Families are no more... The flag of death rose above all others. The earthquake left behind an army of corpses that will reside in the land that betrayed its sons. It also left a huge convoy of wounded, traumatized, and children of torn families. It affected millions of people. We will live long with stories of wounds in Syria and Türkiye. We will live long with sad tales.

The time is not appropriate to talk about the need for stability and governments that match efficiency with integrity. Nor is it appropriate to remind that our countries need hospitals, doctors, and medics much more than they need drones, weapons, and gunmen. Governments are aware of the fragility of slums inhabited by the poor to escape from snow, cold and wind. Governments are aware of the horror of the crime committed by the corrupt when they manipulate building standards in the hope of looting more money. How difficult it is to live without institutions worthy of the name!

I was in Baghdad. This city has a special place in history and in my heart. I visited it to see if it was still living under the aftershocks of the earthquake that overthrew Saddam Hussein’s regime by the US army. I spent two hours interviewing Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani.

I heard him say that corruption is “more dangerous than COVID-19” and “more terrifying than ISIS.” I heard him emphasize the need for Iraq to assume a major role in regional stability – a goal that was initiated by Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s government. I heard him underline the need to launch reforms, build strong institutions, and catch up with scientific and technological development.

A small tour of Baghdad was necessary. It is necessary to pay tribute to the Tigris. The river, with all its splendor, transcends political and security earthquakes. Before going to sleep, a question came to my mind: Did the political structure, which emerged following the fall of Saddam, fail? Will Sudani’s allies allow his plan to succeed?

I slept and when I awoke, the night visitor had struck Türkiye and Syria. I went to the Kurdistan Region, the neighbor of the two earthquakes, which has a history of residing on the faultlines.