IDLIB — Nearly two months after the February 6 earthquake struck Turkey and Syria, many residents of northwestern Syria, the worst-hit part of the country, are still living with fear. They worry the disaster could repeat itself, a concern heightened by rumors and predictions circulating on social media in the absence of any official earthquake-monitoring body.
Hussein Aslan, his family members and neighbors in the northern Idlib countryside city of Dana made it through the February 6 earthquake unscathed. The building they lived in was also not affected, according to an engineering assessment conducted later at their expense.
But in the following weeks, as predictions and rumors that another earthquake could take place circulated, all the building’s residents left their apartments in search of safety, the 50-year-old told Syria Direct.
“I adopted the principle of due caution,” Aslan said. He has lived in Dana since 2019, when he was displaced from the southern Idlib countryside. His own decision to abandon the building was influenced by a number of his neighbors leaving before he did. “Staying in a building abandoned by its residents increases the psychological pressure,” he said. In early March, Aslan left for his brother’s house, a structure roofed with plastic insulation in the Atma displacement camps.
Aslan’s fears, and those of many residents of northwestern Syria, were renewed in recent days after Dutch seismologist Frank Hoogerbeets announced new predictions of seismic activity in late March. Hoogerbeets rose to prominence among Syrians following the 7.6-magnitude February 6 earthquake due to a tweet he posted three days before the disaster, in which he forecast a strong quake in the region.
Predictions or rumors of another major earthquake are increasingly popular among residents of Syria’s earthquake-impacted areas, due to the thousands of aftershocks following the February 6 earthquake. According to the last update by Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD), 11,020 aftershocks struck the area between February 6 and March 1.
Social media, in the absence of a reliable official source of information in northwestern Syria, has contributed to the impact of the February 6 earthquake on people who experienced it—whether or not they were personally harmed. Some have become prone to believing any rumors in this regard, engineer Anas al-Rahmoun explained to Syria Direct.
Residents of northwestern Syria “are highly responsive to rumors related to the earthquake, especially those issued by the Dutch charlatan whose star rose after he posted a tweet predicting the February earthquake before it happened, which led to his predictions being accepted and spreading,” al-Rahmoun said, referring to Hoogerbeets.
Terror reinforced by rumors
Muhammad al-Ashqar has become preoccupied with following earthquake news. He does not believe that those making predictions have the ability to know when and how an earthquake will occur, but “I can’t ignore this news,” he said, attributing it to “the constant fear factor.”
Al-Ashqar’s house was damaged by the February 6 earthquake, and he at first moved to a shelter center 100 meters from his home. But after Hoogerbeets predicted, on March 7, that a new earthquake would hit the area—a prediction that corresponded with the expectations of a geology professor at the University of Baghdad, Salih Muhammad Awadh—al-Ashqar decided to leave the shelter. Worried neighboring buildings would collapse, he went to live with a relative in the Salqin displacement camps.
Although many people have now returned to their homes, al-Ashqar is not thinking of doing the same. “I can’t live in it, since it’s cracked. I can’t do any daily activity for fear of it completely collapsing,” he said.
Al-Ashqar cannot forget the earthquake, when he escaped death, as he described it, not to mention the scene of “neighboring buildings collapsed on the heads of my neighbors.” He added, “we still haven’t recovered from the effects of the first earthquake.”
People’s response to earthquake-related rumors varies. Some “sleep in their cars, after parking them in open spaces far from buildings, and others have covered their vehicles with plastic insulation and converted them, while some have set up tents near their homes that they take refuge in when needed,” said Firas Muhammad, a safety and security field officer with Space of Peace, a humanitarian organization working in the earthquake response.
In February alone, Ahmad al-Othman, the head of a psychological support team at the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM), documented 128 cases of people directly or indirectly affected by earthquake-related rumors. They were diagnosed with “anxiety, psychological stress, panic and fear,” he told Syria Direct.
“More than three million people living in Idlib were physically or psychologically impacted by the earthquake, and it can be said that 75 percent of them suffered psychological pressure and trauma that leaves them vulnerable to rumors that reinforce their fears.”
People affected by the earthquake contribute to spreading rumors, al-Othman said. He warned rumors have a “negative effect on people, summed up in several disorders, including anxiety and constant fear, which causes sleeplessness or constant waking.”
Al-Rahmoun, the engineer, has tried to refute rumors and calm people’s terror through his official profiles on social media and by appearing in the media, “by convincing them that predicting or denying the occurrence of earthquakes is impossible, because geological predictions have a broad scope that may exceed 10 years,” he explained. “It is not logical for people to remain in the streets and shelters for years” in anticipation of an earthquake, he added.
Al-Rahmoun stressed the need for people to adhere to “the reports of the specialized engineering committees regarding the suitability of housing, or evacuation or repair procedures. Those whose homes were not damaged, or were decided to be safe for residence, must return to them.” He called on civilians in northwestern Syria to “live with the aftershocks, as much as possible, because they could last for a year.”
Maher al-Aleiwi, the chairman of the board of the Afrin-based Syrian Association for Psychological Supporters, said “natural disasters leave a painful psychological impact on those who follow them on their phone, so how about somebody who experiences them directly? The psychological effect will be doubled.”
However, al-Aleiwi gave advice for dealing with rumors, including “staying away from social media, and especially news from unreliable sources.” It is also necessary to “create a reliable body giving periodic updates about the disaster” in order to prevent the spread of rumors, he added.
Rather than following rumors on social media and WhatsApp groups, people should “follow the safety and emergency guidelines published by the civil defense, and develop earthquake safety and security plans and practice them with the family,” Othman said.
But in the absence of any official source to follow news of the earthquake in Idlib, al-Ashqar has only found social media as a source of information. He is caught in a trap of rumors, even though he knows “most of them are unreliable.”
This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.