Syria suffers disaster upon disaster as earthquake follows years of war

Sondos Folfula grew used to the sound of destruction and falling buildings after spending much of the past decade traversing northwards through Syria to escape her country’s civil war.

But while in the past it was bombs or artillery shells that caused the chaos, this week it was a devastating earthquake that has heaped disaster upon disaster for millions of war-weary Syrians.

“I lived for seven years in Idlib [province] through shelling, bombardments, you name it — but this earthquake . . . in one moment, entire neighbourhoods came crashing down,” she told the Financial Times via WhatsApp voice notes from the northern city of Afrin. “At least half the buildings [in Afrin] are not safe to return to and so many residents are sleeping on the street.”

In the nearby town of Jindaris, 250 buildings have collapsed and only a handful had been cleared, she said.

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“We’re hearing the screams of people — entire families — still trapped under the rubble,” said Folfula, a mental health worker. There’s no heavy machinery in the area and a few exhausted civil defence workers are clearing the rubble by hand. “They’re running out of time,” she said. “It’s a complete catastrophe.”

The biggest earthquake to strike Turkey in eight decades has also wrought devastation across the border in northwest Syria, an impoverished, war-shattered region that provides pockets of sanctuary for the remnants of the opposition that fought Bashar al-Assad’s regime over a 12-year civil conflict.

In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been able to mobilise state institutions to support the arduous search and rescue operations, as he will for the reconstruction that will eventually follow.

But in Syria, the state has all but collapsed and the nation has been fractured by years of fighting, with the quake hitting regions divided between regime-controlled territory and opposition enclaves. At least 1,800 Syrians are confirmed dead, including four aid workers, and nearly 4,000 have been injured across regime and opposition-held areas.

A Syrian man cries as he sits on the rubble of a collapsed building in the rebel-held town of Jindaris © Aaref Watad/AFP/Getty Images

In the opposition’s northern and northwestern pockets, including those under Turkish control, millions of people were dependent on humanitarian aid long before the quake struck, with goods shipped across Turkey’s border.

But that aid will not come quickly. A vital crossing between Syria and Turkey that the UN uses to transport food, medicine and other goods has been temporarily closed, partly the result of quake damage to roads and other infrastructure.

But it is also because those operating the crossing “are as affected as anybody else”, said Jens Laerke, a UN spokesman. “All our local staff are looking through the rubble for their family members like everybody else.” He also said the UN was concerned that a multi-donor fund, used by its agencies and other aid groups for humanitarian assistance, had “zero” funds in it.

The crossing provides a crucial lifeline to more than 4mn people crammed into Idlib, which is under the control of an Islamist group. Most have been displaced multiple times by the war, and many live in temporary shelters.

Many of those that lived in buildings in and around Idlib are now cowering in the open in freezing conditions, either rendered homeless or scared to return to their houses. Some burn wooden doors found in the rubble of collapsed buildings to stay warm and melt snow for water.

“Those of us who have cars are hiding in them for now,” Mahmoud Marwan told the FT from Sarmada, a town in Idlib province, the call interrupted by several aftershocks. “But we have no idea what comes next: there’s no electricity, there’s no water and people are rationing bottled water. Everyone is getting angrier by the minute.”

Aid groups working in Idlib said they were struggling with poor communications and trying to support their local workers who had lost family members and homes in the quake.

There are also concerns about clean water supplies in an area that endured a cholera outbreak last year, as boreholes become clogged with mud, in addition to securing food and aid from suppliers in Turkey, as it grapples with its own crisis.

“We’ve spoken to some of our suppliers, but of course they’re also dealing with their own tragedy,” said Kieren Barnes, Syria director for Mercy Corps aid group. “In freezing temperatures, it couldn’t have happened at a worse time.”

Russian rescue personnel search for survivors and victims under the rubble of a collapsed building in the town of Jableh in Syria’s northwestern province of Latakia
Russian rescue personnel search for survivors and victims under the rubble of a collapsed building in the town of Jableh in Syria’s northwestern province of Latakia © AFP/Getty Images

The challenges are compounded by the fact there is no central authority in Idlib that is internationally recognised. The region is under control of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a former affiliate of al-Qaeda. It has virtually no resources.

“There isn’t the kind of heavy machinery, the technical expertise, the budgets to throw behind this,” said Barnes.

The situation is also dire in regime-controlled areas, where the economy has been sliding towards collapse as the conflict devastated towns and cities. The Assad regime has been treated as pariah by western states since it used brutal force to crush a 2011 popular uprising and is heavily sanctioned.

In Aleppo, one of the areas under regime control worst affected by the quake, desperate families took refuge in schools after collapsed buildings had killed at least 300 of people in the city and its surroundings.

“You see in the eyes of the children, absolute bewilderment and trauma . . . they’ve seen war and now they’re seeing a natural disaster,” said Angela Kearney, acting representative for the UN children’s agency in Syria, who is in Aleppo. “It’s tragic and it’s devastating. It’s winter time; it’s very cold and wet. People are very frightened.”

Other areas under regime control affected by the quake include Latakia, Hama and Tartus. The government has warned people against going back to their homes, fearing further collapses. Instead people have gathered in makeshift shelters such as mosques and schools.

“There was already very little electricity or heating throughout the country. Now there’s none at all,” said Emma Forster of the Norwegian Refugee Council in Damascus.

While Folfula knows she is lucky to be alive, she worries about those still trapped. “It’s been almost 48 hours now and people are still buried under the rubble . . . there are bodies in the street,” she said. “Why is there no one coming to help us?”

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