As Aid Trickles Into Syria, Residents Say Too Little, Too Late

The first shipment of international aid reached the exhausted residents of opposition-held northwestern Syria on Thursday, a small triumph for the hundreds of thousands who had waited days for help to dig out people buried in the rubble, find secure lodging and obtain food.

But survivors, rescuers and doctors expressed frustration that it was too little, too late. The six trucks of aid from the United Nations, organized before the quake hit, did not contain some of the most urgently needed supplies, such as food, and instead brought less critical items.

“Had international rescue teams come into Syria in the first hours or even the second day, there was a big hope that these people who were under the ruins could have been brought out alive,” said Mohamed al-Shibli, a member of the White Helmets, a civil defense group that operates in opposition-held parts of Syria.

He demanded that the United Nations and global leaders send rescue workers and heavy machinery for moving rubble, dismissing the aid that had reached the region as useless to residents who had resorted to digging for survivors and bodies of loved ones with their bare hands.

“What will children under the rubble do with diapers?” he said, fighting back tears.

Rescue workers sift through the rubble of a collapsed building in search of survivors and victims in Aleppo, Syria, on Thursday.Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Monday’s earthquake affected a large swath of Syria’s northwest, spanning both areas controlled by the Syrian government and others held by opposition forces backed by neighboring Turkey. Those territorial divisions, and a host of other political obstacles stemming from a 12-year civil war which has still not ended, posed formidable challenges and fatal delays in getting international help to those who need it most.

Rescue groups, which have been working nonstop since Monday, have fanned out across the country in a race against time to save lives.

“Some people under ruins are sharing their wills with the team,” Mr. al-Shibli said. “Under the rubble, they ask them to convey messages, they share names of their loved ones, then they die.”

The U.N. aid convoy into Syria had been stalled by road damage from the earthquake, which also affected local workers who verify and transport the aid.

The convoy entered Syria from Turkey, using the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, which for years has been the only passage for United Nations aid into areas held by opposition forces fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the country’s authoritarian leader. The trucks carried shelter materials and nonfood items, according to a spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Deadly Quake in Turkey and Syria

A 7.8-magnitude earthquake on Feb. 6, with its epicenter in Gaziantep, Turkey, has become one of the deadliest natural disasters of the century.

  • A Devastating Event: The quake, which was followed by an aftershock almost as big, rippled through neighboring countries; an area along the Syrian-Turkish border was hit particularly hard.
  • From the Scene: Thousands of people have been killed, and dozens of cities have been gutted. Here is how witnesses described the disaster.
  • A Desperate Search: When buildings fell in Antakya, Turkey, families poured in from all over to help. Videos capture the dig for survivors.
  • Syrian Refugees: Millions of people fled the war in Syria for the safety of neighboring Turkey. Now, those killed in the quake are being returned home.

“This first shipment is a test,” said Jens Laerke, a United Nations spokesman, meant to ensure that the roads were passable. The organization hopes to get as much aid into the northwest as possible as soon as possible, he said.

A man weeping as he carried away the body of his baby, who was killed in Syria.Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

More than 3,300 people in Syria died in the quake, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights — a toll that has been steadily rising since Monday and is expected to keep climbing. Of those deaths, more than 2,000 were in the opposition-held parts of northwestern Syria, according to The White Helmets.

In Turkey, the death toll surpassed 17,500 and was also expected to rise. While waves of international search and rescue teams, using life-detecting dogs, are pouring into Turkey, local rescuers and volunteers are the only ones searching through mounds of rubble and debris in the opposition-held parts of Syria.

Nearly 11 million people in Syria have been affected by the earthquake, about four million of them reliant on aid agencies for basic humanitarian needs such as clean water and food, according to the United Nations.

The White Helmets rescuers have been working since Monday in a diminishing window to save as many people as possible before time runs out, often with their bare hands.

The pleas for more and faster aid were echoed by Syrian doctors, many of whom find themselves caught in a fresh humanitarian crisis after weathering more than a decade of civil war, which has devastated the country’s health care system.

“We had shortages of supplies before the earthquake — now our need has only increased,” said Dr. Mohamed al-Abrash, a 60-year-old surgeon in the northern city of Idlib where he has received hundreds of wounded since Monday.

Before the quake, Dr. al-Abrash said his hospital staff were already in need of critical medical supplies like operating tables and bandages. Now, they needed more sophisticated equipment such as dialysis machines to treat an influx of patients suffering from renal failure from severe injuries.

Medical workers tending to an injured person outside a hospital in Aleppo on Wednesday.Credit…Firas Makdesi/Reuters

Many survivors were refusing to return home as buildings continued to collapse, he said. Residents were building their own shelters in the streets, braving freezing temperatures.

“There are children dying from hypothermia,” he said. “We are forced to wait as people die in the streets,” he added. “We have no idea what is going on. We need politics set aside — we are in disaster.”

Many hospitals in northwestern Syria had been too badly damaged by the earthquake to operate, and patients were stranded, according to other aid groups like Doctors Without Borders, which have also jumped in to help. Its teams had provided medical items and kits to 23 local hospitals and clinics in Idlib Province, near the epicenter, and treated more than 3,400 injured people since the quake.

“The massive consequences of this disaster will require an equally massive international response,” said Avril Benoît, the organization’s executive director in the United States.

Syria was already suffering from a severe nationwide fuel shortage before the quake struck. The widespread power outages afterward have forced many hospitals to rely on generators for power, which typically run on ever-scarce diesel fuel and gasoline, according to the United Nations. Snowfall has further impeded rescue efforts.

More than 1,500 people, many who had already lost their homes during the earthquake, were forced to escape a flooded village in Idlib province after a dam there collapsed on Thursday in the aftermath.

Before the quake, the United Nations had been sending daily aid convoys into the opposition-held northwest.

The earthquake has refocused attention on the ongoing civil war in Syria, which began in 2011 as a popular revolt against the Assad regime. The fighting has largely ceased and the war is essentially a stalemate.

But the ongoing conflict complicates the flow of aid into Syria, as most of it passes through Damascus, the capital, which is in government-held territory. The bulk of it comes via United Nations agencies, which sent $2.13 billion to Syria last year, according to figures released by the organization’s aid agency.

Six trucks carrying aid from the United Nations entered northwestern Syria from Turkey on Thursday.Credit…Omar Haj Kadour/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Because the Assad government tightly controls what aid goes to opposition-held areas, the cross-border aid deliveries from Turkey have been a lifeline for opposition-held areas in the north for years.

The European Union said Wednesday that it would work with the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs to get aid to both opposition- and government-controlled areas of Syria after Syria’s government lodged a formal request for aid with the bloc. The E.U., a major donor of humanitarian aid to Syria, said it was committed to helping Syrians even though it has sanctions in place against the country.

Balazs Ujvari, a spokesman for the European Commission, said E.U. sanctions were designed with exceptions for humanitarian aid in mind.

Syrian officials have called for a lifting of Western sanctions, which they said were obstructing aid deliveries to Syria — a claim that the E.U. rejected.

“We want equipment,” Khaled Hboubati, the head of the Red Crescent in Syria, said at a news conference on Tuesday. “We need fire trucks. We don’t have heavy equipment for evacuation.”

Children resting at a temporary shelter in Idlib, Syria, on Thursday.Credit…Omar Al-Bam/Reuters

Mr. Assad’s regime has opposed efforts to send aid directly to opposition-controlled areas from Turkey, insisting that all aid should go through the government in Damascus.

Still, it is not only opposition-held areas that are struggling.

Dr. Ghassan Fandi, head of a syndicate of doctors in regime-held areas of Syria, said international sanctions were preventing medical equipment from reaching Syrian hospitals, especially spare parts for Western-made machinery.

But a number of countries friendly with the Syrian government have sent aid to Damascus since the earthquake, including Iraq, Lebanon and Iran, which sent a plane on Monday night with 70 tons of food, tents and medicine.

Farnaz Fassihi and Matina Stevis-Gridneff contributed reporting.

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