The humanitarian crisis in Syria is exacerbated by deadly earthquakes

Once again Syrians heard the roar and thump of collapsing buildings, again saw dust rising from mounds of gray, jagged concrete and twisted metal where houses and offices. Once again, people dug into the ruins with their hands, hoping, often in vain, to save those they loved.

In northwestern Syria on Monday, apartment buildings, shops and even entire neighborhoods were wiped out in seconds by a powerful earthquake, in scenes all too familiar to a region devastated by more than a decade of civil war.

Millions of people displaced by years of fighting have fled to the north, the only place that remains outside government control. They sheltered in tents, ancient ruins, and any other place they could find after their old homes were destroyed.

The economic collapse caused by the war had made it impossible for many of them to have a decent meal. The fuel crisis of this winter made them shiver in their bed, without heating. Syria’s destroyed infrastructure has caused cholera to thousands in recent months; the ruin of its hospitals meant that many could not get health care.

Then came Monday’s earthquake.

“How can we tolerate all this? said Ibrahim al-Khatib, a resident of Taftanaz in northwestern Syria, who was caught out of his early morning sleep and rushed into the street with his neighbours. “With the Russian airstrikes, then the attacks of Bashar al-Assad, and today the earthquake?”

Southern Turkey and much of northwestern Syria have been hardest hit, with more than 3,800 dead in both countries and the toll expected to rise further. In Syria, where more than 1,200 people died, entire neighborhoods were razed to the ground in one fell swoop, wreaking in seconds the kind of devastation the population had grown accustomed to enduring air strike by air strike, shell by shell .

At a hospital just outside Idlib, “every moment new bodies were being brought in,” said Dr Osama Salloum. A boy, about 6 years old, died while Dr. Salloum performed CPR on him. “I saw the life leave her face,” he said.

“We kept looking skyward for jets,” Dr Salloum said. “My mind was playing tricks on me, telling me it was war again.”

Mark Kaye, spokesperson for the International Rescue Committee, echoed numerous calls from the United Nations and aid groups for more aid to be sent to Syria in the wake of the earthquake. “Anywhere else in the world it would be an emergency,” he said. “What we have in Syria is an emergency within an emergency.”

Much of Syria still bears the scars of the conflict, which has been in a fragile ceasefire since early 2020. In the face of sanctions, the lack of reconstruction aid from international donors and its own economy in ruin, reconstruction was fragmentary and limited.

The toll of the war – massive destruction, an acute economic crisis, a collapsing currency – will make the earthquake response even more difficult for all parties.

Although emergency teams across the disaster area responded quickly, digging in the freezing cold and rain, the scale of the destruction was too great even for rescuers accustomed to collapsed buildings.

There was not enough rescue equipment to deal with the large number of people trapped in the debris. Buildings that survived the initial powerful 7.8-magnitude earthquake crumbled from repeated aftershocks, reflecting the fragile state of Syria’s infrastructure after years of airstrikes and artillery shelling.

In Aleppo, residents said people too scared to stay in buildings that could still collapse were camping in cars in open spaces such as soccer fields.

The northwest corner of the country, along the border with Turkey, is controlled by Turkey-based opposition groups and is home to around 4.6 million people. Tens of thousands of people in that area were newly homeless, said Raed Saleh, director of the White Helmets, a civil defense and rescue group that operates in areas beyond government control.

Camps for those displaced by the war were full, already housing some of the 2.7 million people who had come to the northwest from other parts of the country.

Scenes in hospitals resembled those at the height of the fighting, as wards overflowed with patients sharing beds and medics tending to casualties in every corner.

Although major hostilities have ended, the health system has still not recovered. According to the International Rescue Committee, only about 45% of pre-war Syrian health care facilities are now functioning.

So far, there has been no large-scale effort to rebuild Syria’s crumbling infrastructure, which the government attributes at least in part to Western sanctions.

Across the country, the population had been reduced to a level of distress that resembled some of the worst phases of the conflict, which began after President Assad tried to forcibly suppress mass anti-government protests in 2011, inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings that swept the region at the time. His Russian allies eventually intervened militarily, tipping the balance in his favor.

This winter, Syrians were burning garbage and pistachio shells just to keep warm, showering only once a week, and staying home from school and work for lack of gas to get them there. A few abandoned hot meals. Others sold their winter jackets to afford any meal.

In some places, electricity had dropped to less than an hour a day, rendering electric heaters and cell phones useless. Water pumps on farms had stalled, driving up food prices; pumps were also not working in apartment buildings, leaving people to drink from contaminated sources.

Syria’s gross domestic product more than halved between 2010 and 2020, according to the World Bank, and it was reclassified as a low-income country in 2018. The coronavirus pandemic has caused even more economic hardship and further strained the country’s health system.

Despite virtually winning the war, the Assad government has been so cash-starved in recent years that it has forced wealthy businessmen to help fund government salaries and services.

Amid the nationwide fuel shortage, Syria’s Petroleum Ministry said on Monday it was sending additional supplies of gasoline and diesel to affected provinces to help power machinery needed for rescue operations and debris removal. The move highlighted how little fuel regions beyond Damascus, the capital, had received in recent months, after the government sharply cut fuel subsidies.

All most Syrians knew was that shortages had made the most basic activities a nightmare, even before the earthquake.

No fuel meant little electricity, which meant little hot water for showering and little means to cook or make hot tea, residents and a Damascus-based aid worker said. Trees in the capital Damascus and Ghouta, a nearby farming suburb, were running out of branches as people cut them down to burn them. Others burned industrial oil residue, the dregs left after pressing olives to make oil, tires, old clothes or just trash they sent their children to fetch from the streets. The houses echoed with coughs caused by the fires.

Outside the house, life all but came to a standstill when taxis and public transport were shut down for lack of petrol.

Schools closed or saw their students stay home because they couldn’t turn on lights or heat classrooms. Internet and mobile networks were down. Government offices were closed for two Sundays in December to save fuel; Dozens of workers around Tartous, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, quit recently rather than spend their wages getting to and from work, according to a local reporter who did not want to be named by fear of government reprisals.

The journalist, his wife and their three children had got into the habit of going to bed as early as possible, around 6 p.m., just to warm up.

Fuel scarcity combined with the collapse of Syria’s water infrastructure to trigger another crisis last year: an outbreak of cholera. In mid-December, the United Nations said there were more than 60,000 suspected cases of cholera nationwide.

Access to clean water was so limited that some Syrians said they gave up washing their hands to conserve clean water or drink directly from the polluted Euphrates, according to a recent survey in northeast Syria. conducted by REACH, a humanitarian group focused on data collection; wallets were so empty that 82% of respondents said the majority of people where they lived could not afford a bar of soap.

“Public services were already on the verge of collapse after 12 years of crisis,” said Emma Forster, policy and communications manager for the Damascus-based Norwegian Refugee Council. “People are saying this is the worst year yet, including the war years.”

Cora Engelbrecht contributed reporting from London and Muhammad Haj Kadour from Idlib.


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