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South African NGO Assists After Turkey-Syria Earthquake

People watch as rescuers search in a destroyed building in Adana, southeastern Turkey, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023.

South African rescue workers say freezing temperatures and aftershocks are hampering their efforts to find survivors of the earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria on Monday.

Medical doctors, paramedics and rescue workers from the South African relief organization Gift of the Givers arrived in Wednesday to assist in rescue efforts in Turkey and neighboring Syria.

Dr. Simphiwe Sobuwa said his team is working to find as many survivors as possible.

"We use search cameras and sniffer dogs to search for any persons that may still be alive. Once we get confirmation there’s missing persons in there, we start the efforts of drilling into the buildings and searching for the persons to extricate them out," Dr. Sobuwa said speaking to reporters on Zoom.

He said he is trying to detach himself emotionally from what he’s witnessing, celebrating when his team finds someone alive with "only a silent prayer" before another search begins again.

"There’s an element of preparing yourself mentally for whatever you’re going to find there. But we’re quite fortunate as South African paramedics with the amount of trauma that we experience; no other paramedics in the world experience what we do," he said.

On Thursday, the total death toll in the two countries surpassed 20,000.

The toll in Turkey rose to 17,406, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said. In Syria, already devastated by nearly 12 years of civil war, more than 3,300 people have died, according to the government and a rescue service in the rebel-held northwest.

Gift of the Givers says it’s particularly concerned about northwestern Syria, where millions of people already rely on aid.

The organization has two established hospitals in the region.

Ismail Alabdullah, an Aleppo-based aid worker who collaborates with Gift of the Givers, said rescuers are calling for immediate help.

"As the time passes, we lose lives. That’s why we’re calling for immediate help. We need heavy equipment, medical supplies, generators, diesel, blankets for those who lost their houses, food, drinkable water…" Alabdullah said.

"We rescued many people alive and healthy and retrieved many dead bodies; families, children, women. The number of the injured, the dead, will double. We’re talking here of entire families under destroyed buildings," he added.

Gift of the Givers director Dr. Imtiaz Sooliman said the tragedy in Turkey and Syria has "astounded" him.

Sooliman said medical staff on the ground are doing their best, but the facilities are overwhelmed and have run out of supplies.

Aid agencies and governments across the world have continued to pledge their assistance to Turkey and Syria.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) said on Thursday it will provide $85 million in urgent humanitarian assistance to the two countries following the earthquakes.

Britain's foreign ministry also announced additional funding — at least 3 million pounds ($3.65 million) — to support search and rescue operations and emergency relief in Syria.

Some information in this report came from Reuters.