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How are Syrians finding shelter in an earthquake zone that's also a war zone?

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

We now visit a war zone that's also an earthquake zone.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We're going to hear from people from northern Syria, where many buildings toppled last week. In that region, many buildings were already down after more than a decade of civil war. The earthquake has now killed more than 2,000 people and left tens of thousands homeless, including many children.

KHALID: Our colleague Ruth Sherlock has covered the unnatural disaster of Syria's civil war for years. Now she's covering Syria's natural disaster and visits a place where people are finding shelter.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: So we're in a gym. It's a basketball pitch, actually, with some chairs around the edges. And around those chairs, people have set up these makeshift tents made out of blankets. And somebody's used a table-tennis table and strung up a string to a hook in the wall and strung up a blanket on it to try to create some privacy.

SHADIA AFRA: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Shadia Afra has four children, twin boys, who are 2, and two little girls. They're 6 and 8. The twins stand beside her as, through an interpreter, she tells me about the night of the earthquake.

AFRA: (Through interpreter) The amount of terror and fright - and they saying were it was judgment day. Like, I can't even describe to you in words what they felt. There are some people the blankets, some people on these many little mattresses, some people on chairs.

SHERLOCK: There are no bathrooms. To wash, they knock on the doors of strangers' homes. And they're also dealing with the deaths of relatives and friends, something they've had to cope with for years in a country that's still in a state of civil war.

AFRA: (Through interpreter) Outside of here, they've been in funerals ever since the earthquake.

SHERLOCK: What stories is she telling her kids? What tricks is she using to try to make this normal somehow for them?

AFRA: (Through interpreter) Yeah. In Syria - wherever you are in Syria, the small kids - they get way older way too quick from the realities that they...

SHERLOCK: Yes.

AFRA: ... (Through interpreter) Witness every single day. And there's nothing that they haven't seen yet.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: We leave the gym-turned-shelter and drive a few minutes down the road.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE DOORS CLOSING)

SHERLOCK: OK. We've arrived at the hospital in Afrin.

Inside, a photographer tries to show me pictures of eight dead children. Their bodies are lying unclaimed in the hospital morgue.

UNIDENTIFIED PHOTOGRAPHER: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: He says he'll put the photos in the local police station in case anyone's looking for them.

UNIDENTIFIED DOCTOR: (Through interpreter) Right now we're trying to just stabilize her, treat her. Hopefully she'll be OK.

SHERLOCK: A small little with curly brown hair lying in bed - somebody's blown up a surgical glove, and she's holding it as if she was holding somebody's hand. It's heartbreaking.

Nour is 3. She has cuts all over her face and is missing her right leg.

UNIDENTIFIED DOCTOR: (Through interpreter) So she was under the rubble after the earthquake. They had to amputate her leg while she's there.

(Speaking Arabic).

UNIDENTITIED PERSON: (Speaking Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED DOCTOR: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Nour's father is the only other survivor in her immediate family. Doctors say he visits, but he hasn't yet built up the courage to tell her that her mom is gone.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

SHERLOCK: In another room, we meet Mohammed. He's 8, and his left arm and leg are in casts. There's a plastic toy car next to him. His great-aunt, Yasmine Marjian, sits beside him.

YASMINE MARJIAN: (Speaking Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: (Speaking Arabic).

MARJIAN: (Speaking Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: (Speaking Arabic).

They stayed for three days till they could, like, take them out of the rubble.

SHERLOCK: Who's they? Him and...

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: The parent - the father and the mother of the kid.

SHERLOCK: Are they alive, his parents?

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: No, they all passed away.

SHERLOCK: He's got a sister as well?

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: Yeah. All of them died. He used to have sisters.

SHERLOCK: Marjian is his closest surviving relative now. She says she'll take care of him, but she's not sure how, because her home is also destroyed.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Afrin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.