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The broken homes and hearts after Algeria's earthquake

 


"It is not true," Ben Salem kept saying to anyone he saw on the street. "It is not true. Maybe they weren't at home during the earthquake. I'm sure they will be back. They have never left me alone before. "Ben Salem went on a business trip to Paris. When he came back he realized that his wife, his two children and his mother had disappeared under the rubble of his home in Boumerdes, Algeria. His family had died in the earthquake, which struck the country on 21 May leaving more than 2,200 people dead, nearly 10,000 injured and at least 20,000 families homeless.

But Ben Salem was struggling to come to terms with what had happened. A dozen times he walked around what used to be his house, calling their names: "Mother, Fathia, Omar, Nourddine…," and then to the people who said that nobody could be left alive under the collapsed building: "Liars, you are all liars."

Hundreds of people like Ben Salem have been assisted by the Algerian Red Crescent Society (ARCS), which was mobilized immediately after the earthquake. Staff and volunteers were quick to respond to the disaster, participating in search-and-rescue efforts, providing first aid, transporting the injured to hospital, mobilizing blood donors and distributing relief goods.

Once the emergency was over, the ARCS appointed intervention teams and local committees to coordinate and organize the operation in five of the most affected sites: Algiers, Rouiba, Boumerdes, Thenia and Bourdznail.

Today, the National Society, with support from the International Federation, is concentrating on assisting those people left without shelter, and erected 600 tents to accommodate 6,000 people in 11 different sites. The camps are expected to be operational for a six-month transitional stage, ahead of the construction of new homes.

"The people are traumatized, scared and lost," said Fateh Khallab, a volunteer, who adds that their faith is sustaining them. A natural disaster, it seems, is easier to take than a man-made one. "It is a test from God," Fateh said.

Caring for mind and body

Years of civil strife have put the ARCS on the front line of national emergency response. From this experience, the National Society has gained considerable experience in providing assistance and psychological support to hundreds of victims of the violence. Following the earthquake, the ARCS and the Spanish Red Cross used this experience and quickly established a unit that offered a traumatized population psychological support. The unit also took care of injuries and treated a series of ailments. "The cases we received were injuries due to the earthquake and respiratory problems caused by the dust from building demolition," explained Dr. Carlo Urkid, who headed the unit. "Many patients suffer from stress, trauma and stomach problems caused by constant fear," he adds. Since the earthquake, the International Federation, through the Algerian Red Crescent, significantly increased its aid to victims of the earthquake. The assistance is designed to tide over the most vulnerable families, those whose homes have been destroyed and who have lost most of their possessions, over the next few months.

"We estimate the operation may continue for up to a year, depending on how soon survivors will be able to move into new homes and return to normal," notes Abbas Gullet, director of the disaster management department at the International Federation's secretariat in Geneva. "We also plan to help the Algerian Red Crescent strengthen its disaster prevention programmes including providing more training for its staff and volunteers, equipping and restocking its warehouses and ensuring sufficient logistics and transport capacity."

Rana Sidani
Rana Sidani was International Federation regional information delegate in Amman, Jordan.


ALL PHOTOGRAPHS CHRISTOPHER BLACK / INTERNATIONAL FEDERATION

Days after the earthquake struck, people were still digging through the remains of their apartment buildings in Bourmedes. "People here are looking for miracles, but there are no miracles in Bourmedes any more" said Mostafa Lahici, a coordinator for the Algerian Red Crescent in the region.

Rescue teams and volunteers worked day and night to try and save the hundreds of people in this one building. Tragically, the search for survivors was almost always in vain.

Helping children cope with the emotional scars left by the earthquake takes time and considerable expertise. For the ARCS, psychological support to children is one of their most important activities.

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