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Rescuer help a person as the search for survivors continues, in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake in Kirikhan, Turkey, on Feb. 9.PIROSCHKA VAN DE WOUW/Reuters

Cold, hunger and despair gripped hundreds of thousands of people left homeless after the earthquakes that struck Turkey and Syria three days ago as the death toll hit 20,700 on Thursday.

The rescue of a two-year-old boy after 79 hours trapped in the rubble of a collapsed building in Hatay, Turkey, and several other people raised spirits among weary search crews. But hopes were fading that many more would be found alive in the ruins of towns and cities.

The death toll across both countries has now surpassed the more than 17,000 killed in 1999 when a similarly powerful quake hit northwest Turkey.

A Turkish official said the disaster posed “very serious difficulties” for the holding of an election scheduled for May 14 in which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been expected to face his toughest challenge in two decades in power.

Latest updates on Turkey and Syria’s earthquake, and how you can help

With anger simmering over delays in the delivery of aid and getting the rescue effort underway, the disaster is likely to play into the vote if it goes ahead.

The first United Nations (UN) convoy carrying aid to stricken Syrians crossed over the border from Turkey.

In Syria’s Idlib province, Munira Mohammad, a mother of four who had fled Aleppo after the quake, said: “It is all children here, and we need heating and supplies, last night we couldn’t sleep because it was so cold. It is very bad.”

Hundreds of thousands of people across both countries have been left homeless in the middle of winter. Many have camped out in makeshift shelters in supermarket car parks, mosques, roadsides or amid the ruins, often desperate for food, water and heat.

Some 40 per cent of buildings in the Turkish city of Kahramanmaras, epicentre of the tremor, are damaged, according to a preliminary report by Turkey’s Bogazici University.

At a gas station near the Turkish town of Kemalpasa, people picked through cardboard boxes of donated clothes. In the port city of Iskenderun, Reuters journalists saw people huddled around campfires on roadsides and in wrecked garages and warehouses.

Authorities say some 6,500 buildings in Turkey collapsed and countless more were damaged.

The death 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.

In the devastated Syrian town of Jandaris, Ibrahim Khalil Menkaween walked in the rubble-strewn streets clutching a white body bag. He said he had lost seven members of his family, including his wife and two of his brothers.

“I’m holding this bag for when they bring out my brother, and my brother’s young son, and both of their wives, so we can pack them in bags,” he said. “The situation is very bad. And there is no aid.”

Turkish officials say some 13.5 million people were affected in an area spanning roughly 450 kilometres from Adana in the west to Diyarbakir in the east. In Syria, people were killed as far south as Hama, 250 kilometres from the epicentre.

Rescue crews looked for survivors at the site of a collapsed building in the dark in the city of Adiyaman with temperatures below freezing, Turkish broadcasters showed.

Teams frequently called for silence, asking all vehicles and generators to be turned off and reporters to keep quiet as they listened for sounds of anyone alive under the concrete blocks.

There were still some signs of hope.

A video released by Turkey’s Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) showed a helmeted and dust-streaked rescuer weeping with emotion after successfully freeing a little girl from the rubble of a collapsed building in Kahramanmaras.

Many in Turkey have complained of a lack of equipment, expertise and support to rescue those trapped – sometimes even as they could hear cries for help.

After facing criticism over the initial response, Mr. Erdogan said on a visit to the area on Wednesday that operations were now working normally and promised no one would be left homeless.

Nevertheless, the disaster will pose an additional challenge to the long-ruling president in the election.

Greece sent thousands of tents, beds and blankets on Thursday to help those left homeless by the quake, in an act of solidarity with a neighbour that is a NATO ally but also a historic foe.

Israeli satellite intelligence was helping map the disaster zones in Turkey with mapping capabilities predominantly used for special operations, the Israeli military said.

In Syria, relief efforts are complicated by a conflict that has partitioned the country and wrecked its infrastructure.

The UN aid convoy entered Syria at the Bab al-Hawa crossing – a lifeline for accessing opposition-controlled areas where some four million people, many displaced by the war, were already relying on humanitarian aid.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres pushed for more humanitarian access to northwestern Syria, saying he would be “very happy” if the United Nations could use more than one border crossing to deliver help.

The Syrian government views the delivery of aid to the rebel-held northwest from Turkey as a violation of its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Syrian civil defence said at least 2,030 people were killed in opposition-held northwest Syria, and the government has reported 1,347 deaths.

Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations on Wednesday admitted the government lacked capability and equipment but blamed the war and Western sanctions.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has chaired emergency meetings on the earthquake but has not addressed the nation in a speech or news conference.

How you can help

Canadians who wish to support victims of the earthquake in Turkey and Syria must ensure any organization they are giving to is credible and has a solid track record in the work it advertises. Resources such as Charity Intelligence Canada can help with this. You can also check the Canada Revenue Agency to see whether its registration is up to date. Be aware that relief groups based abroad may not be able to issue you tax receipts for donations.

  • White Helmets: Since 2018, this volunteer rescue group has helped Syrians through search-and-rescue operations, evacuations and medical care.
  • Union of Medical Relief and Care Organizations: A French-based coalition of humanitarian groups that supports Syrian victims of war.
  • Médecins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders): This non-governmental organization had been in Syria before the quake and has mobilized more resources there.
  • Islamic Relief Canada: A charity providing basic services to vulnerable people in disaster areas.
  • Molham: A non-profit relief group founded by Syrian university students in 2012.
  • Oxfam Canada: This global anti-poverty organization is raising funds for humanitarian efforts in Turkey and Syria.
  • Save the Children: The Canadian branch of this international NGO is accepting donations for children and families in the disaster area.
  • UNHCR: The United Nations refugee agency supports those fleeing the Syrian conflict with emergency supplies and medicine.