Syrians living in the rebel-held northwestern region have decried the lack of humanitarian aid for victims of two powerful earthquakes that hit Turkey and Syria, describing the catastrophic scenes in an area already ravaged by a 12-year civil war.
On Sunday, United Nations humanitarian aid chief Martin Griffiths acknowledged the shortcomings, saying the Syrian population in the territory felt “abandoned” because the aid they had hoped for had not yet arrived.
“So far we have failed the people in northwestern Syria. They rightly feel abandoned. I’m asking for international help that hasn’t arrived,” he wrote in a tweet.
“It is my duty and our obligation to correct this omission as quickly as possible. That’s my focus now,” he added during a visit to the border region, five days after devastating 7.8 and 7.6 magnitude earthquakes – and numerous aftershocks – rocked Turkey and Syria, killing more than 33,000 people, including at least 4,500 alone. in Syria.
on #Turkey–#Syria today’s border.
So far we have failed the people of northwestern Syria.
They rightly feel abandoned. I’m looking for international help that hasn’t arrived.
It is my duty and our obligation to correct this omission as soon as possible.
That’s my focus now.
— Martin Griffiths (@UNReliefChief) February 12, 2023
Before the earthquake, humanitarian aid entered the northwest mainly through the Bab al-Hawa land crossing with Turkey, the only internationally agreed access point.
But aid convoys did not arrive for the first three days, and the UN said the roads on the Turkish side were impassable. The first trucks finally started arriving via Turkey on Thursday, but demand still far outstrips supplies.
However, according to Raed al-Saleh, head of the Syrian Civil Defense, or White Helmets, the two convoys that passed through on Thursday and Friday – 20 trucks in total – were carrying “scheduled aid”, which is occasionally delivered to families in refugee camps and includes sugar, flour and edible oil.
“It was not help for the families and people in the towns and cities that were in the disaster zone after the earthquake,” he said on Saturday.
On Sunday, al-Saleh responded to Griffiths’ apology on Twitter, saying: “After today’s meeting with @UNReliefChief on the Turkey-Syria border, we appreciate the apology for the shortcomings and mistakes.”
He then called on the UN to work on opening more land crossings into northwestern Syria besides Bab al-Hawa, which is the only one approved by a UN Security Council resolution.
After today’s meeting with @UNReliefChief on the Turkish-Syrian border, we appreciate the apology for the shortcomings and errors. Acknowledging this is the beginning of the right path. Now @UNarapski must act outside the Security Council to open 3 emergency crossings in the NW #Syria. pic.twitter.com/A90knazX48
– Raed Al Saleh (Raed Al Saleh) (@RaedAlSaleh3) February 12, 2023
Aid to government-controlled areas
The Syrian government in Damascus is also receiving aid from international donors, and there is still uncertainty over whether it will be fairly distributed to all affected parts of the country, including the rebel-held northwest.
UN officials entered the government-held city of Aleppo on Saturday, after issuing a warning saying up to 5.3 million people in the country could be left homeless by the quake.
The director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is also in Aleppo, arriving on a plane carrying about 35 tons of vital medical equipment, according to the Syrian state news agency SANA, which adds that another plane will arrive in two days.
During a visit to Kahramanmaras, the epicenter of the initial quake, Griffiths said he hoped aid delivered to the Syrian government would also go to government- and opposition-held areas, but that was “not clear yet”.
But in the rebel-held northwest, where four million people need humanitarian aid, there have been no aid deliveries from government-held areas.
The long delay in the arrival of aid has prompted rescuers and members of the White Helmets to criticize the UN and the international community for not responding quickly enough to urgent needs.
The opposition has called for more land crossings to be opened since the day of the earthquake, but Bab al-Hawa remains the only recognized crossing until a UN decision is sought.
“We have sent humanitarian aid requests to various countries and world organizations, including the UN, since the earthquake first struck to save as many people as possible under the rubble,” said Fatima Obeid, a 26-year-old veteran of the White Helmets.
“The situation is unbearably catastrophic. From 12 years of war until this earthquake, the Syrian people in this region are suffering.”
Speaking from the town of Sarmad, Obeid said entire families were buried under the rubble of collapsed and destroyed buildings.
“The hardest moment for me personally was finding a husband and wife, both dead under the rubble with their arms covering their little son – who was alive,” she said.
Obeid said the 72-hour window after the earthquake was crucial, and now the chances of finding more people alive are very slim.
“We could have saved a lot more people if we had the technology and heavy machinery needed to lift the debris,” she said. “All the aid and necessary food items to the overcrowded aid centers are donated by volunteers, civil organizations and charities on the ground.”
‘Biased humanitarian action’
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called on the Security Council – which will meet next week to discuss Syria – to approve the opening of new cross-border aid points between Turkey and Syria.
The Syrian government announced on Friday that it had approved the delivery of humanitarian aid to earthquake-hit areas outside its control. But a UN spokesman said on Sunday that earthquake aid from government-held parts of Syria to the northwestern territory had been halted because of “authorization issues” with the hardline Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) armed group.
A UN spokesman in Damascus declined to comment, saying the UN “continues to work with the relevant parties to gain access to the area”.
An HTS official in the northwestern Idlib region told the Reuters news agency that they would not allow any shipments from government-held parts of Syria, and aid would come from Turkey to the north.
“Turkey has opened all avenues and we will not allow the regime to take advantage of the situation to show that it is helping,” said the HTS man.
Al-Saleh of the White Helmets condemned what he called a “policy of aid” at the expense of the most vulnerable and needy.
“Humanitarian aid does not enter this region unless there is a vote in the UN Security Council, negotiations, blackmail – all the while endangering the lives of Syrians,” he said.
A lack of food and clean drinking water, accompanied by a lack of shelter and bitter sub-zero temperatures, is pushing the largely displaced population who fled the war to the brink.
Al-Saleh said he expected the UN to be “neutral” in its humanitarian work and not “politically biased”.
“Many people’s lives depended on it and it is the main reason for the huge number of deaths,” he said.
“The victims have been let down by the UN, which has been troubling for days saying that the roads are blocked and the crossings are closed. The UN did not hear the screams of the people trapped under the collapsed buildings, crying for help,” he said, his voice breaking.
“We had hoped that only one UN official would visit the area. But there is clearly a bias towards humanitarian action.”
“Children are crying”
At least 1,300 buildings in the northwestern territory were completely destroyed and 500 others partially destroyed, and some towns and villages now resemble ghost towns, al-Saleh said.
“The whole situation is catastrophic,” he said, referring to people sleeping outside on the roads or in their cars because they don’t have shelter.
“The children are crying because of the icy winter. It is those who have nothing who give us the little they have, as they donated their fuel to us, even if they themselves lose the little warmth they had.”
On the Turkish side of Bab al-Hawa, in Cilvegozu, Al Jazeera reporter Stefanie Dekker said that instead of aid trucks entering Syria, only the bodies of Syrians who died in the earthquake in Turkey are being transported.
“What we saw were black body bags being handed over on the back of a truck and then being driven to Syria to be buried at home,” she said.
“We spoke to officials on the other side of the border, the Bab al-Hawa crossing, and they said that so far 950 bodies of Syrians killed in the earthquake have been transported to be buried at home.”
Dekker described “heartbreaking” scenes of relatives opening body bags to see their loved ones’ death certificates.
“Death is everywhere here,” she said.