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After the earthquake, northwestern Syria’s crisis deepens ‘by the day’

Before the earthquake, northwestern Syria was taking the first steps of early recovery. The disaster set it back several years, and thousands of impacted people now face a shortage of emergency aid in the absence of support for stabilization and basic services.

2 March 2023

PARIS — For the third week in a row, Um Wissam and her son are sharing a tent with another family of five, in a camp on the outskirts of the earthquake-stricken city of Jenderes. They have been there since the February 6 earthquake that struck northern Syria and southern Turkey, killing tens of thousands of people in both countries and destroying thousands of residential buildings—including both families’ homes. 

The mothers and children spend cold nights inside the tent, while their husbands sleep wrapped in “light blankets outside,” said Um Wissam, a Jenderes resident originally from the eastern Idlib countryside.

The day of the 7.7-magnitude earthquake, Um Wissam, her husband and son came with their neighbors to the camp, which was set up by the Jenderes Local Council for those affected by the disaster. 

Since they arrived, her family and other residents of the camp have received “only one meal and two bundles of bread [a day], without any other assistance—no food baskets, no cleaning supplies and no clothes,” she said. 

For Um Wissam, a volunteer in the Syrian Civil Defense (White Helmets), the idea of her family having their own shelter, “even if only a small tent with no heating,” has become a dream. Her situation today is unlike anything she has experienced, “even though we’ve been displaced for three years,” she said, referring to her first displacement from eastern Idlib after the regime took control of the area. 

Jenderes is the part of Syria most badly impacted by the February 6 earthquake. There, 1,388 buildings were completely or partially destroyed, while 1,100 people were killed out of at least 2,777 total victims in opposition- and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)-controlled areas of the country’s northwest. 

Like thousands of Syrian families, what Um Wissam’s family needs—and lacks—is emergency assistance. But they are also waiting for a more comprehensive response, one related to stabilization support and repairing or rebuilding infrastructure and residential buildings. 

Aid that does not meet needs

Syrians were left on their own to face the disaster until the third day after the earthquake, when the first United Nations (UN) aid convoy entered northwestern Syria on February 9. When it finally came, the convoy disappointed many who were waiting for help—including search and rescue teams and heavy equipment to pull people out from under the rubble. The shipment did not include any of that: It was not part of the disaster response, but a delivery scheduled before the earthquake. 

On February 12, one week after the earthquake, UN Under-Secretary-General and Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths acknowledged that the UN had failed Syrians in the country’s northwest, tweeting: “We have so far failed the people in north-west Syria. They rightly feel abandoned. Looking for international help that hasn’t arrived.” 

Since last month’s disaster, 400 trucks have entered earthquake-affected areas through border crossings controlled by the Turkish-backed opposition Syrian Interim Government (SIG), according to Minister of Economy Abdel Hakim al-Masri, who heads the SIG Aid Committee formed in response to the earthquake.  The shipments included 45 UN trucks carrying food baskets, he said. 

Aid trucks have brought tents, medicine, blankets, cleaning supplies, food, drinking water, baby formula, clothes and other supplies to northwestern Syria, but it is “not enough,” al-Masri told Syria Direct on Monday. “They covered some people’s needs, but we still need a lot, because the scale of the disaster is huge,” he said. 

Al-Masri estimated that, after the earthquake, the areas his government administers need 3,000 tons of flour, more than 20,000 cans of baby formula and more than 20,000 food baskets a month, in addition to heating materials, medicine, cleaning baskets, tents and trailers. He emphasized the need for “the urgent and monthly entry of these materials.” 

Muhammad Haj Abdo, a lawyer and member of the Afrin City Council’s Emergency Committee, agreed. “The aid is still not enough,” he said. In the first week, Afrin received “blankets, clothes, meals and food baskets,” as well as a recent delivery of tents.

The situation is the same in areas administered by the Salvation Government, the political front of HTS in Idlib and the western Aleppo countryside. There, more than 35,000 families were impacted by the earthquake, nearly 10,000 of whom are distributed amongst 68 shelters in the area, “living in difficult humanitarian conditions,” Khaled al-Omar, the head of the Salvation Government’s General Directorate of Humanitarian Affairs, told Syria Direct

In the face of a disappointing international response, northwestern Syria’s earthquake-stricken areas have received donations from Syrians inside and outside of the country. These included a convoy of 120 trucks and cars loaded with aid provided by clans and residents of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)-controlled northeastern Syria. The convoy entered areas held by the opposition Syrian National Army (SNA) through the Aoun al-Dadat crossing on February 13.

Despite the continued flow of aid over the border with Turkey since the third day after the earthquake, there are still “high-level administrative complications, and regional and international political matters that hinder the proper flow of aid,” said Saeed Nahhas, a board member of Sened, a humanitarian organization working to help people with disabilities in Syria and Turkey. 

Disorganization and chaos

Unlike Um Wissam’s family, Maryam’s family of four received a small tent of their own in the Jenderes countryside after spending four days in a collective shelter. Still, Maryam, a nurse in her twenties who works at a local medical point, and her family face a “lack of sufficient water and toilets,” she told Syria Direct.

The Jenderes Local Council, which oversees the camp where Maryam’s family lives, has allocated one water tank for every five tents. Displaced residents have set up one “toilet with walls [made] of blankets” for every two tents, she said. 

“The distribution of aid is not organized in a way that would allow it to reach everyone fairly,” she said. Last week, a vehicle carrying aid arrived at the camp, and was thronged with people. “Those who could reach the aid got it,” she said, while she was not able to get clothes for her children, as was the case for a number of other families. “The camp was provided with drinking water and bread for the first five days, then it was completely cut off,” she added.

The disaster response varies from camp to camp and shelter to shelter. Sometimes, the fortunes of different families within the same camp vary, according to Um Muhammad, who is living with her family in another camp run by the Jenderes Local Council. Since the first day of the earthquake, she received “a tent, and enough aid and food baskets, unlike some residents who have not received enough assistance,” she told Syria Direct

Syria Direct monitored comments on recent Facebook posts by the Jenderes Local Council, in which people from the city complained about chaotic aid distribution, saying it was given to people who were not entitled to it, while some have not received any aid.

Commenting on that, Haj Abdo, of the Afrin Local Council, said “chaos dominates the aid distribution mechanisms,” due to “the individual handling of the response by those providing support.” He also highlighted “poor coordination with the local council,” as aid distribution in the city is conducted in isolation from it. 

To control the chaos, it is necessary to “return people who were not impacted to their homes, whether those who left their residence out of psychological fear or as a result of minor damage,” Haj Abdo said. This would “reduce the number of people displaced by the earthquake.” 

Salvation Government areas have also experienced “chaos and confusion” in aid distribution, two civilian sources told Syria Direct

Al-Omar, of the General Directorate for Humanitarian Affairs, said “aid directly reached the impacted people, and the Salvation Government has not received any aid.” He noted that the de facto government’s Ministry of Development, which is responsible for humanitarian issues, has worked to “facilitate aid access to those entitled to it, and to direct it so distribution is fair.” 

Derek Omar Alderbas, the Director of Emergency Response at Violet Organization, a Syrian humanitarian NGO, said he understood “people’s complaints about poor organization and chaos,” but “the scale of the disaster is greater than the capacity of all the humanitarian organizations inside [northwestern Syria] put together.”

“We still are not able to meet all the needs, because they are greater than the available capacity,” he added. 

Why focus on emergency assistance?

In the wake of the earthquake, northwestern Syria’s needs changed, prompting humanitarian organizations to change their operations to suit the current crisis, as in the case of Sened. The organization, which supports people with disabilities, pivoted to “urgent response, and stopped its old projects in 11 Turkish provinces and inside Syria,” Nahhas said. 

As aftershocks continue in southern Turkey and northwestern Syria—some above 6.0 on the Richter scale—going back to the way things were before the earthquake is becoming more difficult. 

“Basic needs are increasing by the day, especially since the disaster occurred during the winter, when what is needed is [already] beyond our capabilities,” said Alderbas, from Violet. Then came the earthquake, “exacerbating the inability of the organizations and society as a whole.”

Even before the disaster struck, “we needed heavy machinery, medicine and hospital equipment, which are constant needs in Syria due to the war, and were exacerbated after the earthquake. Unfortunately, until today there is no response in this context,” Alderbas said. He noted that the UN aid that entered northwestern Syria after the earthquake is “routine relief assistance, the same that has been entering for eight years.” 

Civilians and organizations working in the area also fear further damage to residential buildings as aftershocks continue. More damage would mean “an increase in the number of people in need of shelter, which puts additional pressure on the current shelters,” said Alderbas, whose organization is focused on providing shelter and basic needs. 

“The response to the earthquake grows more difficult by the day,” Alderbas said.“It will not be like the first days after the earthquake, because needs are increasing.” 

Where should future support be focused?

With thousands of buildings damaged by the February 6 earthquake, providing alternative housing and repairing damages are priorities in northwestern Syria. But “residential construction must be done with good specifications, to ensure a decent life for people,” al-Omar said. In the Salvation Government’s areas of influence in Idlib and its countryside, 25,000 houses need to be built, and 10,000 repaired, he said.

In Salvation Government areas, the earthquake also damaged 26 government buildings, 93 mosques, 54 schools, 103 roads and 67 sewage lines, according to Muhammad Ghazal, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Local Administration. The aid that has arrived in the area so far “hasn’t targeted the service sector at all—all of it is in-kind, related to the emergency response to the displaced.” 

“We need heavy machinery and material support to rebuild the destroyed buildings and restore roads and sanitation,” Ghazal added. He estimated the damages in areas his government administers at more than $1 billion. 

In the SIG-controlled northern Aleppo countryside, the earthquake damaged 2,500 residential buildings, in addition to public buildings such as schools and hospitals, Minister of Economy al-Masri said. The damage assessment is not final, but he projected the total damages would exceed $450 million. 

As a preliminary plan to respond to the earthquake, the SIG is seeking financial support to “provide trailers for those who lost their homes, and to repair houses with minor damage,” al-Masri said. Once the initial damage assessment is completed, “the relevant international authorities will be contacted in order to provide alternative housing for those whose residences have been destroyed and cannot be repaired, and this takes time.”

On top of repairing damaged buildings, earthquake-stricken areas need “support for services, and to repair damaged [service infrastructure], including sustainable water pumping,” Haj Abdo, of the Afrin Local Council, said. While the earthquake did not kill large numbers of people in Afrin, it caused “damage to the electricity network and internal roads, as well as two hospitals in the city.” 

To get back to where it was before the disaster, Afrin needs “special equipment for removing and demolishing damaged buildings, and the engineering reinforcement and minor repair of damaged buildings.”

Al-Omar added that “work is needed to secure medical services, infrastructure, public utilities and livelihood projects to provide job opportunities for those who lost their jobs and trade.” Another need is “rehabilitating road and sewage drainage, digging drinking water wells and equipping them with pumping stations.”

At an individual level, “people must be provided with housing, because they cannot afford basic repairs, meaning that a tent or alternative housing is the final option,” Haj Abdo added. 

But so far, the aid coming from the UN has not been poured into any stabilization support sectors. Apart from being emergency response aid, it “only meets a small portion of people’s needs after the earthquake,” al-Omar said. 

One sector that has seen a weak response, despite its importance, is the health sector. In Idlib, most aid for this sector “comes from individual donations or charities” coordinating needs with the Salvation Government’s Ministry of Health, according to Shadi Haj Hussein, the ministry’s spokesperson. 

Aid brought to hospitals by local organizations, independent of the Ministry of Health, “is not aid for earthquake victims, but routine medical baskets for the hospitals they support in the liberated [opposition-controlled] areas,” Haj Hussein said. Meanwhile, “there is no response by international organizations and the UN on the medical level,” he added. 

After the earthquake, Haj Hussein stressed the need to “repair hospitals and restore the stocks of medical supplies and medicine that were used up due to the major pressure on hospitals and the health sector in the first days of the disaster.” The ministry has prepared files of what is needed in terms of “medical devices, surgical, emergency and pharmaceutical supplies, and they have been submitted to the local and international authorities,” he said. “So far, we have not received any response.” 

“Most injuries resulting from the earthquake are orthopedic and neurological,” Haj Hussein noted, which require lengthy treatment, in some cases more than a year. “A single patient needs multiple surgeries,” he said. Many earthquake survivors who spent hours under the rubble also suffer from crush syndrome, which often leads to kidney failure and requires dialysis, “amid a shortage of devices and necessities for dialysis centers even before this disaster,” he added. 

Munir al-Mustafa, Deputy Director of the Syrian Civil Defense, said his organization “needs logistics to clear the rubble and debris, which could take time due to the enormous quantities [of rubble] and large number of destroyed buildings.” They also need support for “assessing residential buildings with the help of engineering bodies, in order to determine which are habitable and which are not.” 

Once an assessment is done, uninhabitable buildings must be removed, followed by work to repair infrastructure. Water and sanitation services were significantly damaged by the earthquake, amid the spread of cholera and leishmaniasis, al-Mustafa said. 

“We were taking the first steps of early recovery, but the earthquake set us back several years,” al-Mustafa said. “After February 6, nothing is the same. It is necessary to work as hard as possible.” 

This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.

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