Earthquake relief will be challenging in war-torn Syria. Here’s how aid agencies are trying to help

Two major earthquakes, followed by  aftershocks, have devastated parts of southern Turkey and northern Syria and killed thousands of people. But the destruction in Syria has made a desperate situation even worse for millions of people who have survived the country’s ongoing civil war. 

The most-affected areas were among the hardest hit by bombings and fighting in the 12-year conflict, including Idlib province. The area is largely controlled by a militant group engaged in active combat against Syrian government forces backed by Russia. 

“We need help. We need the international community to support us,” Ismail Alabdullah, a member of the Syrian Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, said in a video posted on social media from Salqin in Idlib province.

Alabdullah, standing in front of a mountain of rubble, said dozens of families were trapped under collapsed buildings and White Helmets volunteers were trying to save whoever they could. But he fears the death toll will climb significantly.

International aid agencies have issued urgent appeals for financial assistance to support relief and rescue efforts. But in a country that has already endured a long-running catastrophe — one that has seen international support wane as the conflict drags on and attention is diverted elsewhere — the demand for humanitarian support had already grown before another disaster hit. 

“It doesn’t get easier after 12 years. With every passing day that people are displaced and they have to flee their homes, things become more difficult,” Rula Amin, the senior communications advisor for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told CBC News Network in an interview from Amman, Jordan.

“These people have been suffering from one crisis to another.”

Watch | White Helmets member describes destruction in Syria:

White Helmets urge international community for help after earthquake devastation in Syria

In the aftermath of a major earthquake, the White Helmets are urging the international community for support in their efforts to assist hundreds of people still buried under the rubble in northwestern Syria. Ismail Alabdullah, a volunteer with the group, says he has no doubt that the fatalities will grow by the thousands.

Desperate situation in Syria

According to Doctors Without Borders, of the 6.8 million people internally displaced inside Syria, about 2.7 million are in northwestern Syria and the majority are women and children.

They live in tents or buildings damaged by the war, Amin said, and many health facilities in war-torn areas are only partially functional or not functional at all. Many families increasingly don’t have the means to provide food and education for their children, she explained.

An aerial view of workers standing on a large pile of concrete rubble.
This aerial view shows residents helped by bulldozers, searching for victims and survivors in the rubble of collapsed buildings, following an earthquake in the town of Sarmada in the countryside of the northwestern Idlib province. (Muhammad Haj Kadour/AFP via Getty Images)

Making matters worse, there was a winter storm hitting part of the region when the earthquakes struck, said Wassim Khemadja, the Turkey and Northwest Syria Director for U.K.-based aid group Action for Humanity. The group and its affiliate, Syria Relief, work across northern Syria, including in opposition-held Idlib. 

“Right now they are sitting on the street and without blankets, without food, without water in very freezing weather,” he told CBC News from the Turkish city of Gaziantep, near the earthquake epicentres. 

A man with a white helmet cuts through concrete as other people stand above, on a pile of rubble, watching.
Members of the Syrian civil defence, known as the White Helmets look for casualties under the rubble following an earthquake in the town of Zardana in the countryside of the northwestern Syria’s Idlib province. (Mohammed al-Rifai/AFP via Getty Images)

Because the earthquake has caused so much damage, communications have been heavily affected and Khemadja said it’s been hard for him and his organization to assess the full extent of the destruction in Idlib.

Regardless of who’s in control of one area or another, Khemadja said neither the government nor any opposition group can manage the situation alone because infrastructure and vital utilities were already in ruins before the earthquakes. 

Politics and divisions will need to be set aside to assist everyone in need, Amin added. 

A cloud rises from a pile of concrete rubble as people stand in front.
In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, civil defence workers and security forces search through the wreckage of collapsed buildings in Aleppo, Syria on Monday. (SANA via AP)

Damaged water systems posed risks

Elsewhere in the northern part of the country, Oxfam International is trying to assess damage in  the government-controlled areas where it works, including Tartus, Latakia, and Aleppo — a city that suffered intense aerial bombardments in 2016 in a Russian-led offensive against opposition strongholds.

On top of the dozens of buildings that have collapsed in Aleppo, water tanks and reservoirs have also been damaged or destroyed, said Moutaz Adham, Oxfam’s country director in Syria. 

“We need to work on the rehabilitation of this water system to ensure that people have access [to clean drinking water],” he said from Syria’s capital, Damascus. 

The limited access to safe water has fuelled a cholera outbreak across all of Syria, affecting approximately 85,000 people since September, with Aleppo and Idlib among the most affected areas, according to the United Nations (UN). 

Adham said even though there had been a decline in the spread of the highly infectious illness — which causes severe diarrhea, vomiting, dehydration and death, if left untreated — cases could surge again with infrastructure being damaged even more. 

A man and two boys stand on a sidewalk, dusted with snow. The man, on the right, and the boy, on the left are wrapped in thick, grey blankets. A younger boy stands in between, wearing a thick jacket, a hoodie and a hat on his head.
A Syrian man and children gather outside on a street in Aleppo following the deadly earthquakes. (Louai Beshara/AFP via Getty Images)

Aid workers killed

Further complicating relief efforts is the fact that employees of international agencies working in Syria have been affected by the powerful earthquakes. 

Amin said UNHCR’s workers in the affected areas had been accounted for, but Action For Humanity lost at least two of its workers in Syria, Khemadja told CBC News. 

One was a medical worker, who died along with her two children, and the other was one of the organization’s data management staff who was killed with his whole family. Both resided in Idlib province. Staff based in both Syria and Turkey have also suffered damage to their homes and lost relatives in the quakes. 

Doctors Without Borders also confirmed, in a news release, the death of one of its staff members, also in Idlib.

Although Adham said no Oxfam staff were known to be killed in the quakes, they were severely affected. 

“Many of our staff are traumatized by the events. Many of our staff actually had to sleep or to spend their nights in the streets because they were concerned and feeling unsafe to go back into the buildings,” he said.

It’s another challenge agencies like Oxfam have to deal with as they try to save the lives of others. 

Watch | Powerful earthquakes devastate northern Syria:

Turkey and Syria hit by huge earthquake

Desperate rescue operations are underway in southeast Turkey and northern Syria after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck the region.

What support are organizations able to provide?

Amin said UNHCR aims to deliver tents, plastic sheeting, mattresses, blankets and winter coats, while other UN agencies will help with health supplies to treat the injured.

She said there is also an urgent need for equipment to rescue people trapped below the mountains of concrete rubble that were once homes. 

“Because of what happened in Syria the past 12 years, whether it’s in the northwest part [of the country] or in the government-controlled areas, there are very few tools that people can use to extract these bodies out of the rubble in time to save these lives,” Amin explained. “[Families] are pulling them out with their own hands. They’re using their fingers, their nails, to pull them out.” 

In the immediate aftermath of the quakes, Action for Humanity is working to provide food and shelter to survivors.

Khemadja said the charity’s staff are supplying hot meals at temporary shelters it has set up for people who have lost their homes. The organization is also assembling emergency kits that include ready-to-eat meals to feed a family for one week, for people who have shelter but not a means to cook, along with other non-food items like blankets, hygiene products and soap. 

But aid resources in Syria were already stretched thin and it will take substantial international support for recovery efforts. Oxfam, for example, met just 48 per cent of its funding appeal to respond to the Syrian crisis last year, Adham said. 

“When you speak about 52 per cent unmet, you can only think of the millions of people that we could not respond to,” he said. He says the priority now is to make sure the organization’s humanitarian response plan can be funded. 

“This is not the time to give up on Syrians,” he said.

Watch | Canadian loses family member in Turkey earthquake:

Vancouver woman’s family members trapped under rubble after earthquake in Turkey

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