Sian Norris speaks to The White Helmets about the challenges Syria faces in rescuing and supporting survivors of the devastating earthquake that hit the region

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An international rescue effort is underway to save lives from the devastation of Monday’s earthquake which devastated parts of Turkey and Syria, and which has killed more than 5,000 people as well as flattened buildings and destroyed ancient historical sites.

Rescuers have shared the horror of hearing voices of those trapped in the rubble “crying out with pain” and “calling for help”.

Turkey’s Vice President Fuat Oktay has called the quake the “disaster of the century” as those looking for survivors describe a “race against time”.

One French aid worker, Patrick Villardy, told The New York Times that “there can always be miracles”.

While attention is on the immediate rescue effort, there is a longer-term concern for the safety of survivors. The quake risks worsening the situation for Syrians in the affected region, who are already struggling to survive and rebuild after enduring 12 years of civil war that has claimed thousands of lives and continues to rage.

“The situation is catastrophic, and our organisation is not equipped to handle this scale of disaster,” the White Helmets’ Oubadah Alwan told Byline Times. “Buildings and homes have been completely destroyed, leaving people with no shelter during the harsh winter.”

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The White Helmets is a civil defence organisation working in Syria, helping communities to respond and recover from attacks. It was set up at the start of the civil war. Alwan described how the search and rescue efforts in the affected areas have been “carried out in freezing temperatures and amidst aftershocks”.

Syria has already lost so much of its infrastructure, or seen its infrastructure severely damaged, during the 12 years of civil war that was sparked by pro-democracy protests in the 2011 Arab Spring. The region affected by the earthquake has faced intensive armed violence, including a shelling campaign by the Assad regime’s Russian allies.

Now, the earthquake is raising fears that already struggling hospitals and emergency response efforts will not be able to cope with the urgent need of the injured.

“Hospitals are beyond capacity and there is a shortage of medical equipment and supplies,” said Alwan.

More than 600 healthcare facilities have been attacked across Syria since 2011, with 111 incidents of explosive armed violence against hospitals where civilians have been killed or injured, according to data collected by the charity Action on Armed Violence (AOAV). The figure is based on English language news reports. 

Last year, a hospital in Aleppo was hit by an air strike, while in September 2021 a woman was killed when a medical clinic in Idlib – the territory controlled by the rebels – was shelled. Both regions have been impacted by the earthquake. There have been at least five explosive attacks against medical facilities in Afrin since 2011, according to AOAV data, where at least 50 people have been killed and hundreds more injured since Monday’s disaster. 

The legacy of these attacks against hospitals and medical facilities now risk hampering the rescue and recovery efforts from the earthquake.

Russian Forces have Targeted12 Hospitals Since 2011

Sian Norris

In the short-term, as Alwan explained, hospitals are over-capacity when trying to meet the needs of the immediately injured. But the long-term impacts of the earthquake are set to put pressure on already buckling medical services, too.

Destroyed buildings are leaving people without homes and at risk of hypothermia – temperatures in Syria can drop to below freezing during the winter months. Meanwhile, there is a risk that damage to essential infrastructure can lead to the spread of water-borne diseases.

Damage caused by the earthquake has also blocked the main road from Turkey into Syria, the route from where critical United Nations aid reaches the conflict-ridden country, making it harder to bring emergency shelter, medical supplies and food aid to those affected.

Challenges in bringing international aid to Syria will also impact on refugees who have been displaced by the war. Although the majority of refugee settlements are not in the region impacted by the quake, any block to aid caused by infrastructure damage is going to intensify their daily struggle for survival, according to Alwan. 

“The response efforts and distribution of aid are stretched thin, making it difficult to meet refugees’ needs,” Alwan told Byline Times. “The displaced in Syria were already struggling to survive with limited resources, and now the response is even more limited due to the earthquake.”

The UK Government is sending immediate support to Turkey, including more than 70 rescue experts and sniffer dogs trained to find those trapped in the rubble. Andrew Mitchell, the UK Aid Minister, has confirmed that Britain will be working with the White Helmets as it has previously done and has urged for more crossing points into Syria to be opened. 

The Assad regime has been accused of playing politics in the disaster, with the Syrian ambassador to the UN, Bassam Sabbagh, saying his country should be responsible for the delivery of all aid into Syria, including those areas not under Syrian Government control.


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