Story Corps

The crowd chants "Allahu akbar," Arabic for God is Great. Volunteers and civil defense groups — themselves earthquake survivors — pull a boy out from the rubble alive in rebel-held northwestern Syria.

He's the only member of his family to survive the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that rocked parts of his country and Turkey on Monday.

A day earlier, another video went viral showing volunteer rescuers in a different part of the rebel-held territory saving a family — two girls, a boy and their father — from under the rubble some 40 hours after the quake.

The world knows of these rescues because of Karam Kellieh, a resident and photojournalist who lives in the opposition-controlled territory. The area is home to some 4 million people displaced by the decade-long Syrian civil war. Even before the earthquake, the area was devastated by bombs and poverty. Aid was often hampered by politics and the Syrian government.

"It's devastation. Devastation for the women and children," he said.

NPR was able to reach Kellieh on Wednesday by phone. He spoke from Jinderes, a part of Syria's Aleppo province that's under opposition control. He said countless buildings there have collapsed. People are in the streets in the freezing cold, waiting for aid to arrive. Aftershocks have made buildings still standing unlivable.

"Humanitarian aid and international aid haven't appeared 72 hours after the catastrophic earthquake," he said, describing the little help that is trickling into the region as a haphazard grassroots effort by individual groups.

"Rescue efforts are being carried out by poorly equipped civil defense groups and civilians are trying to help," Kelliah said. "Everyone's waiting for international rescue and aid just to be able to process what's happened, this catastrophe."

A grim situation persists in northwest Syria

Local authorities say 11,000 families in the rebel-held part of Syria are now homeless after the quake. Up to 2,000 deaths have been reported and thousands more injured, according to the United Nations.

In other parts of Syria controlled by the government, the Syrian Health Ministry said more than 1,300 people have died from the earthquake.

The overall death toll across Syria and Turkey passed 20,000 late Thursday, according to The Associated Press. Tens of thousands more are injured.

Rescue efforts in northwestern Syria continue as untold numbers of people remain trapped under the rubble. Stories of miraculous rescues, like that of a baby girl born under the rubble, are a bullhorn for what's at stake.

"The situation remains grim in north-west Syria where only five percent of reported sites are being covered by search and rescue," the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in a report.

U.N. aid trickling in, but much more needed

The first United Nations convoy since the earthquake struck Monday crossed into rebel-held Syrian territory on Thursday with six trucks carrying shelter and other desperately needed relief supplies.

Extensive road damage along the one and only border crossing the U.N. uses had caused delays.

"More help is on the way, but much more, much more is needed," U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said.

People are still digging with their own hands in many areas, but the situation is particularly dire in northwestern Syria, where there is little heavy machinery to lift rubble. Hospitals struggle with power outages and fuel shortages.

​The White Helmets civil defense group that works in this opposition-held part of Syria said incoming U.N. aid does not include equipment for search and rescue efforts.

"We are disappointed at a time when we are desperate for equipment that will help us save lives from under the rubble," the group said in a statement on Twitter.

Aya Batrawy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

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