After years of war, residents of areas in northwest Syria struck by a massive earthquake are grappling with their new and worsening reality.
Days after the devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck northern Syria and neighboring Turkey, the United Nations has acknowledged an international failure to help Syrian quake victims.
In Atareb, a town that Syrian rebels still hold after years of fighting government troops, survivors dug through the debris of their homes, picking up the remnants of their shattered lives and looking for ways to heal after the latest in a series of humanitarian disasters to hit the war-battered area.
Excavators lifted rubble and residents with shovels and picks destroyed columns to even out a demolished building.
Dozens of newly displaced families gathered for hot meals from local volunteers and the local opposition-run government. A private citizen went tent to tent to give out wads of cash in a makeshift shelter — the equivalent of about $18 to each family.
Syrians were doing what they have honed over years of crises: relying on themselves to pick up the pieces and move on.
“We are licking our own wounds,” said Hekmat Hamoud, who had been displaced twice by Syria’s ongoing conflict before finding himself trapped for hours beneath rubble.
Syria’s northwestern rebel-held enclave, where over 4 million people for years have struggled to cope with ruthless airstrikes and rampant poverty, was hit hard by the Feb. 6 quake.
Many in the area were already displaced from the ongoing conflict and live in crowded tent settlements or buildings weakened by past bombings. The quake killed over 2,000 people in the enclave, and displaced many more for a second time, forcing some to sleep under olive groves in the frigid winter weather.
“I lost everything,” said father of two Fares Ahmed Abdo, 25, who survived the quake. But his new home and body shop where he fixed motorcycles for a living were destroyed. Once again with barely any shelter and no power nor toilets, he, his wife, two boys and ill mother are crammed in a small tent. “I am waiting for any help.”
Visiting the Turkish-Syrian border recently, U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths acknowledged in a statement that Syrians have been left “looking for international help that hasn’t arrived.”
“We have so far failed the people in north-west Syria. They rightly feel abandoned,” he said. “My duty and our obligation is to correct this failure as fast as we can.”
Northwest Syria relies almost entirely on aid for survival, but post-quake international assistance has been slow to reach the area. The first U.N. convoy to reach the area from Turkey was on February 9 — three days after the earthquake.
Before that, the only cargo coming across the Bab al-Hawa crossing on the Turkey-Syria border was a steady stream of bodies of earthquake victims coming home for burial — Syrian refugees who had fled the war in their country and settled in Turkey but perished in the quake.
The U.N. aid sent from Turkey to Syria is only authorized to enter via the Bab al-Hawa crossing, and logistics were complicated by pressure on the roads, many of them destroyed by the quake. While technically, international aid can also be sent from Syrian government-held areas to rebel-held areas in the northwest, that route brings its own set of hurdles and was at best a trickle.
Critics of the government of President Bashar Assad say aid funneled through government-held areas in Syria faces bureaucracy and the risk that authorities will misappropriate or divert the aid to support people close to the government.
A convoy carrying U.N. aid that was scheduled to cross on February 12 into rebel-held Idlib from the government area was canceled after its entry was blocked by the the Qaida-affiliated rebel group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which dominates the area. An administrative arm of the group said in a statement declined to receive assistance from government areas.
Strips of northern Syria are held by a patchwork of sometimes-conflicting groups, further hindering aid deliveries. Turkish-backed rebels have blocked aid convoys from reaching earthquake victims that were sent by rival U.S.-backed Kurdish groups in neighboring areas.
“We are trying to tell everyone, put politics aside. This is the time to unite behind the common effort to support the Syrian people,” said Geir Pedersen, the U.N. special envoy for Syria who landed in Damascus.
At the United Nations, U.S. envoy Linda Thomas-Greenfield called for an urgent U.S. Security Council vote to authorize the opening of additional cross-border passages into northwestern Syria.” People in the affected areas are counting on us,” she said in a statement. “They are appealing to our common humanity to help in their moment of need. We cannot let them down.”
While aid has been slow to reach the northwest, a number of countries that had cut ties with Damascus during Syria’s civil war have sent help to government areas. Arab countries including Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have stepped in. UAE’s foreign minister visited Damascus and met with Assad.
Raed al-Saleh, the head of the White Helmets, a civil defense group operating in the rebel-held northwest, said Griffiths’ visit was “too little, too late.” He said calls for international assistance by local rescue teams went unheeded for days “and during this time, countless lives have been needlessly lost.”
Al-Saleh met with Griffiths to demand the opening of additional cross-border routes for aid to enter without waiting for authorization from the U.N. Security Council.
Abdel-Haseeb Abdel-Raheem sifted through the rubble of his aunt’s destroyed four-story building in the town of Atareb in opposition-run northern Aleppo. He had pulled the bodies of his aunt and her husband from beneath the rubble hours after the quake. Now he went back to find any valuables, using his hands and dipping his body inside the skeleton of the destroyed building to pull out blankets and pillows, as well as some clothes.
The 34-year-old said he had no illusion that humanitarian assistance will solve his problems.
“We have no hope anymore,” he said.