After an earthquake and a civil war, northern Syria plunges into new despair: NPR
Aaref Watad/AFP via Getty Images
Much of the destruction and death from Monday’s magnitude 7.8 earthquake in Turkey is across the border in northern Syria, an area already ravaged by more than a decade of civil war and the myriad crises that followed.
Syrian officials have already reported at least 650 deaths, according to the Associated Press. That number omits casualties in the rebel-held northwest of the country, where aid groups estimate hundreds more have died.
And as the death toll continues to rise, residents and aid groups in the country’s northern region have described dire scenes of collapsed buildings, overcrowded hospitals, desperate parents clutching unconscious children and rescuers frantic digging in the rubble.
“This is the last thing people need in Syria,” said Jomah Al Qassim, a Syrian aid worker currently across the border in Gaziantep, Turkey.
Since the beginning of Syria’s civil war in 2011, endless disasters have beset this region of the country – thousands of civilian deaths, extensive infrastructure damage, water and electricity shortages, the spread of COVID-19 and cholera. Al Qassim described it as “an accumulation, a bunch of crises”.
“People were already exhausted,” he said.
“What happened today is more difficult than all the years that have passed, because of the shelling and all that we have been through,” said Hamid Qutaymi, a Syrian civil defense worker, l Syrian voluntary aid organization also called the White Helmets, which spent Monday working as a first responder.
NO #Syria in a state of disaster after a magnitude of 7.8 #earthquake. Destruction, devastation and collapse of buildings. Hundreds injured, dozens dead, many trapped under rubble or stranded in the winter cold. We call on the international community to act. pic.twitter.com/rtzqRJa8IP
— The White Helmets (@SyriaCivilDef) February 6, 2023
Syria’s civil war began in 2011 when protesters, inspired by the success of uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, called for an end to Bashar Assad’s repressive rule. But Assad ordered a violent crackdown, sparking the civil war that is still active today. His forces have now regained control of most populated areas of the country. But some areas – like in Idlib – remain under opposition control.
More than 300,000 civilians were killed from March 2011 to March 2021, or 1.5% of the country’s population, according to a report released last year by the UN human rights office.
A ceasefire brokered in early 2020 cooled the fiercest fighting in recent years. But five foreign military forces and a number of other armed groups are still active inside the country, and aid groups report that thousands of civilians continue to die each year as a result.
The conflict has irreparably altered daily life in war-torn parts of the country, including northern Syria. In 2018, the UN estimated that the war caused more than $120 billion in damage to roads, infrastructure and homes. In 2017, the World Bank estimated that almost a third of all homes in Aleppo and Idlib were damaged or destroyed during the conflict.
At least half of the country’s pre-war population was displaced, either internally or as refugees, according to the UN; of those still inside Syria, the UN estimates that 90% live in poverty. Food prices have skyrocketed. Drought, high temperatures and widespread destruction of water infrastructure have combined to cause a water crisis, which in turn has exacerbated the electricity and healthcare crises.
Omar Haj Kadour/AFP via Getty Images
Now Monday’s earthquake has added another layer of misery.
“We are in the depths of despair right now,” said Raed Saleh, director of the White Helmets.
For years during the Syrian Civil War, the White Helmets worked in opposition areas to save civilians from the consequences of airstrikes. Now they and other aid groups are rushing to search for survivors among the rubble of buildings destroyed by the earthquake.
The earthquake’s damage is much more extensive than any airstrike, Saleh said. But at least today search and rescue teams could operate without the usual fear of a follow-up airstrike, he said – a grim positive.
The wintry weather has prolonged the misery of families forced from their homes, with rain expected Monday evening, followed by cold weather dipping below freezing overnight.
Yet as aftershocks continued hours after the original quake, aid groups were urging residents not to return to damaged homes until the buildings could be inspected for structural integrity.
“The situation outside is also very stormy and rainy, with snow as well. But we told them that their safety is more important,” Saleh said.
The number of dead and injured had already overwhelmed hospitals in the affected area, said Ahmed Ghandour, a doctor working in Idlib province.
“There is no place for everyone,” he said, adding that there would soon be a shortage of medical supplies due to the scale of the casualties. “Inshallah, we will do our best to cure them, to help more people.”
Additional reporting by Ruth Sherlock and Jawad Rizkallah of NPR in Beirut.