In the days that followed the earthquake, the only things coming in through the border were the hundreds of body bags being returned to their families
“As I write this, the death toll from last week’s devastating earthquake stands at more than 33,000. By the time you read this, the number will be significantly higher.
At this very moment, rescue workers are digging through the rubble that has trapped thousands of people still missing in both Turkey and northwestern Syria.
The international community has the responsibility to act beyond words of solidarity and short-term pledges
The scale of the damage caused by the earthquake is impossible for anyone to imagine and has yet to be fully uncovered. Rescue missions are now turning into recovery operations.
In Turkey, authorities have estimated that 180,000 people may still be buried in the rubble.
In Syria, it is even more difficult to guess any numbers. The volunteer Syria Civil Defence, known as the White Helmets, have said that when international aid does eventually come through, it would be too late to help find survivors and would instead go towards removing the rubble and recovering dead bodies.
The apocalyptic levels of destruction we are seeing in northern Syria in particular are a result of half-measure policies the international community has taken when it comes to Syria. To this day, little international aid has come into northwest Syria.
The newly-opened Bab al-Hawa crossing along the Turkish-Syrian border is the only aid corridor, and it is under the threat of closure in a similar fate to the other routes held hostage by Russia’s veto. On Monday, a week after the disaster, President Bashar al-Assad under UN pressure agreed to open two more border crossings to let more aid into quake-hit opposition areas.
In the meantime, people in northern Syria have been left to pick up the pieces alone – those who have found themselves braving war and displacement are having to dig up their friends and families from the rubble with their bare hands.
In the days that followed the earthquake, the only things coming through the border were the hundreds of body bags being returned to their families.
No emergency equipment, no aid, no rescue teams, just dead bodies. Only now we are beginning to see aid trickling into the region, but nowhere near enough to deal with the catastrophe at hand.
Even before the earthquake, there was a humanitarian disaster with an estimated 4.1 million people relying on humanitarian assistance.
The area’s health facilities have been hanging on by a thread for the past decade – made worse by the regime’s deliberate targeting of hospitals and restrictions on aid access.
The international community has the responsibility to act beyond words of solidarity and short-term pledges. Europe’s response has been particularly disappointing; while many countries sent rescue teams, it was after delays and days after the earthquake.
In a context where the first 48 hours are crucial to saving lives, this was simply not good enough. Even the UN has admitted its failure towards the people of northwestern Syrian, citing the delayed arrival of urgent aid to earthquake victims.
Preventing such delays, as noted by the White Helmets, could have saved lives.
The UK government’s response has not been much different. The Disaster Emergency Committee raised over £60m in three days from the public, this included a mere £5m ($6.08m) from the government.
So, while the people of the UK have stepped up generously in giving, the UK government has failed to replicate this – with minimal immediate funding and vague promises of more to follow in the weeks and months ahead.
This partly reflects the disengagement by the international community towards the region at a time when the war in Ukraine is holding diplomatic and donor attention. The UK’s laudable support for Ukraine must not be at the expense of the rest of the world, particularly those areas affected by crises.
In 2021, then-Chancellor Rishi Sunak cut the aid budget from the UN target of 0.7 percent of GNP to 0.5 percent. This amounted to a cut of 21 percent, from £14.5bn ($17.6bn) to about £11.4bn ($13.8bn).
In the case of Syria, aid was reduced from £181m ($220m) in 2020 to almost half that at £91m ($110m) in 2021. At the time, many leading charities warned that these cuts would have a devastating effect.
To be absolutely clear: these cuts have cost lives.
European and western governments must do better. We cannot be bystanders in this horrifying tragedy. The road ahead is long and it is only in the days and weeks ahead that we will know the true extent of the damage. It might be too late for rescue efforts, but we absolutely have a duty towards survivors.
More delays simply means more lives will be lost. There is an urgent need to ensure governments across the world are deploying every mechanism they have for humanitarian response.
Now is not the time for politicians to stand idly by – it is time to increase international aid for Syrian and Turkish earthquake victims and commit to leaving no one behind. ”
Salah Aboulgasem, an aid worker for Islamic Relief in Gaziantep, Turkey
“A humanitarian aid worker participating in rescue efforts in Turkey described the first 72 hours after the area was hit by a devastating earthquake as “unprecedented.”
Salah Aboulgasem, 36, told BuzzFeed News via a late-night WhatsApp call that the level of destruction is even worse than it seems.
“I’m sure that the images that are being shown all around the world are very difficult,” he said. “But seeing it here, meeting people, looking into the eyes and seeing the suffering that people are facing is something [at a] completely different level.”
Aboulgasem, who has 16 years’ experience in humanitarian aid, is a worker with Islamic Relief, a nonprofit organization that has been assisting search and rescue teams by providing shelter, medical aid, and food in Turkey and Syria in response to the deadly earthquakes. He arrived in Gaziantep, a province in southern Turkey, on Monday to aid in the emergency response efforts after the region experienced a catastrophic 7.8-magnitude earthquake. At least 20,000 people were killed in the disaster.
According to a statement released on Monday, Islamic Relief has launched a $24 million global appeal to provide urgent aid to Turkey and Syria.
Aboulgasem told BuzzFeed News of the painful moments he witnessed working on the ground.
Suhaib Salem / Reuters
Rescuers search for survivors at the site of a collapsed building following an earthquake in Gaziantep, Turkey, Feb. 7, 2023.
“Every so often you hear screams, and the screams you’re hearing [are] people discovering their family members [have] been taken out of the rubble, dead. It’s really hard,” Aboulgasem said.
Aboulgasem told BuzzFeed News that the area is still experiencing tremors from the original earthquake. Around 70% of the buildings in Nurdaği, a town in the province of Gaziantep, had completely collapsed, he said.
The buildings that remain up are unsafe. Many residents are sleeping in their cars or tents and gathering around fires to keep themselves warm, according to Aboulgasem.
Aboulgasem said he found a man crying in despair hearing his grandchildren under the rubble, more than two days after the earthquake.
“He said, ‘I could hear in the rubble my grandchildren calling out to me, asking me to save them. They’re 2 meters away from me. I can hear them but I can’t get to them,’” Aboulgasem told BuzzFeed News. “There’s nothing more painful I’ve ever sort of felt, in listening to a grandfather talk about the despair of hearing loved ones calling out to them and not being able to do anything to help them.”
Dilara Senkaya / Reuters
People sit in front of a collapsed building following an earthquake in Gaziantep, Turkey, Feb. 7, 2023.
Even when a rescue is successful, happiness can be short-lived. Aboulgasem’s team recovered a 20-year-old man from the rubble who was unable to celebrate his own rescue after finding out his father was still trapped.
“So, the rejoic[ing] and happiness of surviving is then taken away very, very quickly by the fact that other family members are still in rubble,” Aboulgasem said.
After three days in Gaziantep, Aboulgasem said rescuers have yet to scratch the surface on this disaster, adding that he thinks at least 10,000 more people are still buried beneath the rubble.
“It’s going to be like this for a while. And therefore, in a week, two weeks, three weeks, we want people to keep thinking of the people of Turkey and the people of Syria,” Aboulgasem said. “
Read the full article on Middle East Eye.