The San Juan Daily Star
Feeling abandoned by the world in a stricken corner of Syria
By Raja Abdulrahim
For years, northwestern Syria has been home to millions of people displaced by war, so many that neighbor no longer knew neighbor. And so when an earthquake struck last week and homes were reduced to rubble, many couldn’t say with certainty who had been accounted for and who was still missing.
Now, with the painstaking search for survivors and victims mostly over and the death toll in Syria alone rising above 3,000, residents of one town, al-Atarib, are scouring the rubble for personal possessions. They speak bitterly of feeling abandoned by the world.
For days, they said, in the absence of international aid, they were sometimes forced to dig through rubble by hand, as survivors begged for help. Yazam Mousa, 17, said he had been returning to the collapsed four-story apartment building he used to live in every day since he and his family ran out after the quake hit Monday.
“At 5 a.m., after the earthquake, we pulled out everyone, people who were alive and people who were dead,” he said. “Those who died, may God rest their soul. And those who are injured, may God heal them.”
Many have been combing through the debris of what used to be their homes, looking for identity papers, property deeds, personal photos — anything they can possibly salvage to start piecing their shattered lives back together.
Rescue workers say that without more help from the outside world, there was little they could do.
“We felt helpless, just helpless,” said Ali Obeid, a 28-year-old member of the White Helmets, the group leading rescue efforts in this part of Syria. Nearby, protesters stood precariously on top of broken concrete and twisted metal, holding up signs denouncing the United Nations.
But getting aid to this stricken enclave of Syria is even harder than it is to get it to neighboring Turkey, where more than 31,000 people died in the quake.
For 12 years, Syria has been in a civil war that has carved the country up into different zones of control. The enclave where al-Atarib is located is held by opponents of Syria’s authoritarian president, Bashar Assad, making its situation still more complicated and reducing international aid to a trickle over the past week.
“We were racing against time and in the end, our work was mostly done by hand,” Obeid said. “We would arrive at a downed building, and the people inside were alive. We were able to talk to them, but we didn’t have the equipment available to get them out.”
In the first days after the earthquake, no outside help came at all.
Left to their own devices, residents banded together, they say, with neighbors pulling neighbors from the rubble, donating fuel and vehicles to the local rescue teams and turning mosques into donation centers.
The single border crossing that the United Nations needed to use to deliver aid to the opposition-held area was out of operation for the first two days after the earthquake because the roads leading to it were damaged, U.N. officials said. (On Monday, the United Nations announced that two more aid crossings from Turkey into northwest Syria would be opened.)
“All of them were absent during the catastrophe,” said Obeid of the White Helmets. “The United Nations and all the international aid groups” contributed to the population’s suffering because they did not help, he said.
The aid shortages have been compounded by the area’s mutual hostility with the Assad government in Damascus.
Assad has sought to control the flow of all relief to opposition-held lands and strictly limits what goes in. And the opposition forces that control the region refuse to accept aid that comes through the government side, which it blames for its long-standing humanitarian crisis.
Obeid, recalling the day of the earthquake, said he and other rescuers were driving through al-Atarib when they were flagged down by a man who ran to them in tears, saying that his family was trapped under the rubble. When Obeid saw the building, four floors pancaked together, he began to cry as well, he said, unsure whether the rescue team would be able to save them. But the operation was a success.
The White Helmets said early promises of assistance from Western and Gulf nations did not materialize.
“We called in our loudest voices: All these areas needed rescue equipment,” said Muneer Mustafa, deputy chief of the White Helmets. He spoke from the rescue group’s operation room and pointing to a large sketch pad propped up on an easel on which they had written the names of towns affected and the number of rescue teams dispatched.
“We couldn’t get to 60% of those places,” he said.
On the third day after the quake, a 20-person medical and rescue team arrived from Egypt, but the aid workers had no tools or equipment with them. A four-person Spanish rescue team arrived on the fourth day — but also lacked gear.
“We needed equipment more than people,” Mustafa said. “We already had people.”
Across the border in Turkey, much more assistance in the form of foreign rescue teams, equipment and mobile kitchens has poured in.
But in northwestern Syria, where construction was less dense and the death toll lower, the United Nations sent in its first aid convoy only on Thursday. It had been planned before the earthquake and contained some shelter materials and cleaning supplies.
Muhammad al-Omar, spokesperson for the opposition government in the region, said the United Nations wanted to send aid convoys not through the border crossing with Turkey but from areas controlled by the Syrian government, a move that was unacceptable to them.
“The United Nations must know that there is a general popular rejection for any aid coming from the areas of the criminal regime,” Omar said in written response to questions.
“People here know the reason for their displacement and who caused the bombing of their homes and led to their cracking and the increase in earthquake victims, which is the Syrian regime.”
With the search-and-rescue phase ended, much of the work being done across northwestern Syria is about clearing the rubble, opening streets and helping people rebuild their lives.
But even in this new phase, residents still need the equipment they have been begging for since the early hours after the quake.
Although little aid has entered Syria from Turkey, more than 1,200 bodies of Syrian refugees killed in the quake there have been coming across the border over the past week. At the town cemetery in al-Atarib, a mass grave has been dug for both Syrians who died in Turkey and those still being found at home.
There are no headstones, just cinder blocks painted with last names, or sometimes just the name of the city the deceased had fled from. Entire families are buried together.
Tahir ibn Muhammad, 53, who lost a daughter and his mother in the earthquake, was standing in the doorway of a carpentry workshop across from what used to be his apartment building as a private removal company funded by Islamic Relief, a U.K.-based charity, was clearing the rubble.
Neighbors had helped them escape before their building collapsed, but minutes later, he said, he climbed back inside to grab the briefcase in which he keeps all the family’s important documents, including his children’s high school and college degrees.
He was less angry about the lack of foreign help — he didn’t expect much from the international community — than comforted by the local response.
“It is enough that this society was holding together,” he said. “That is more important than all the international aid.”