It was 4:15 on a Monday morning when the ground started moving, and “the [bell] tower was shaking, and some pieces fell.” Suddenly awake and in shock, Giacomo Pizzi, an NGO worker who arrived in Aleppo, Syria, the day before, fled from his room in the St. Francis Monastery, seeking the relative safety of the street. The busted tower was the first sign of the quick and brutal destruction that visited the ancient city.
Immediately after the February 6 earthquake, about five hundred people sought shelter in the St. Francis Monastery, where they endured a significant aftershock in the middle of the day. On February 20, another earthquake struck the region. News agencies report tens of thousands of deaths in Turkey and Syria, but numbers are hard to verify in war-torn Syria. This is a disaster on top of a disaster. Apart from damage to the bell tower and the cupola of its adjacent church, the monastery survived the earthquake, as did most other buildings in Aleppo’s downtown quarter of Azizieh. But there was more damage in the eastern part of the city, the target of regular aerial bombing campaigns during the civil war. “You cannot distinguish the rubble from the earthquake from the rubble that is left from the bombing of 2016,” Pizzi reported. The day after the first earthquakes, he ventured to east Aleppo to assess the damage in the three orphanages funded by his organization. All three buildings were mostly unscathed, but several of the orphans had died in their new homes. They were children born during—and sometimes because of—war, children who, in Pizzi’s words, “have never known peace.”