Updated Feb. 12, 2023. The earthquake hit Turkey and Syria in the early hours of Monday. As of now, the number of dead between the two countries has risen past 33,000, the vast majority of which are in Turkey. In Syria, over 4,500 are reported dead, including over 2,000 in rebel-held areas, and more than 5,000 are injured.
The earthquake in Syria piles devastation onto the effects of war. Residents of northern Syria, especially in Aleppo, one of the cities hit worst by both the civil war and the earthquake, have become accustomed to the shaking of walls and window panes throughout the night; on Monday, they were awoken by another form of destabilization — the earthquake and its many devastating aftershocks. There are now fears that cholera outbreaks detected earlier this year could make matters rapidly worse.
“We’ve been hearing their voices,” says a Syrian woman begging for better equipment to excavate survivors. This was reported to us from Syrian informers on the ground who are currently living through the ordeal of witnessing a disaster whilst remaining unable to help for lack of equipment. There’s more about this below, but let’s first take a look at the overall situation.
International aid delivery: First Turkey, Syria next, with delays
Although aid has been arriving in Turkey in droves since the scope of the damage became widely known, only two aid shipments have been received in northern Syria since Monday.
As the UN Special Envoy to Syria, Geir O. Pedersen, said, “the emergency response must not be politicised”:
The devastation from the earthquake is unimaginable. My appeal not to politicize emergency response. This about putting people first. https://t.co/O0DiPzmBpz
— Geir O. Pedersen (@GeirOPedersen) February 9, 2023
The delays are both logistical and the result of past political decisions: They have been partly caused by closed roads due to the effects of the earthquake and to the sanctions put in place against Syria by the West, which restrict imports into the country.
Although aid arrived by plane and helicopter to Hatay, Turkey – the epicentre of the earthquake – Syrian towns only 20 kilometres away were passed by.
One Syrian medical student said in disbelief, “They say the roads are closed. They could not bring a team 20 more kilometres by helicopter?”
The delays are also due to the fact that the areas in Syria where the earthquake caused the most damage are mostly controlled by the rebel forces that President Bashar al Assad has been battling since 2011.
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Whilst aid to rebel-held areas of Syria has been blocked for the last six months, some UN shipments were finally delivered directly across the Turkey-Syria border on day 5 of the earthquake.
The first consisted of six trucks from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) which carried “shelter items and non-food item kits, including blankets and hygiene kits.” The convoy reached Bab al-Hawa, a border town north of Latakia, on Thursday.
The second shipment from IOM, 14 trucks this time, were dispatched on Friday to the rebel-held town of Idlib.
But what do Syrians really need? Cranes and digging equipment
The crux of the issue actually lies in the gap between the kind of aid being delivered and what the victims say they need.
Syrians need cranes and other digging equipment. Now, five days on from the earthquakes, the chance of saving any more survivors from the rubble is diminishing by the hour. That chance becomes even smaller when those attempting the rescue operations are doing so without access to proper equipment or adequate knowledge of how to remove victims from collapsed buildings.
One woman named Suha from the town of Genders said, “Under this building there are people. Since the day before yesterday, we’ve been hearing their voices. But we have no equipment to lift concrete. We only have everyday tools for working around the house.” (bolding added)
There are concerns that many people will inadvertently do more damage to trapped victims by trying to remove rubble without the proper equipment or training. The Syrian medical student stated how badly they needed a heavy-duty jackhammer and a team to come and help the people be removed from under the broken houses.
Instead, locals are complaining that they are now receiving aid in the form of food that they had needed for months, but hadn’t received. The only problem? Food isn’t useful for carefully lifting broken cement off of loved ones.
Cyprus has apparently heard these pleas and has activated its crisis management system in response to the urgent humanitarian needs in Syria. Besides dispatching humanitarian aid, they are also expected to send rescue teams to aid in the effort to excavate people from the rubble.
However, now that the will, the money, and the system for delivering aid have been devised, there’s hope that more humanitarian actors will avoid past mistakes and will make an effort to listen to the aid beneficiaries in order to figure out what Syrians really need.
The information for this article was provided to Impakter by J.L. Morin, New York Times best-selling author of several novels, including Nature’s Confession and Loveoid; she is currently in Cyprus, relaying reports from Syria.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: The rubble-lined streets of Daraa, Syria one week before the earthquake. Featured Photo Credit: Mahmud Sulaiman.