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In Focus

The Syrians rebuilding their communities a year after devastating earthquakes: ‘A ray of hope’

Thousands were killed and many more displaced by the disaster in areas already ravaged by 13 years of civil war. Lauren Crosby Medlicott speaks to rescue workers, doctors and teachers about trying to get lives back on track and calls for more international help

Tuesday 06 February 2024 16:32 GMT
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Children sit at a tent used as a makeshift school classroom in the town of Jindayris in the northwest of Syria’s Aleppo province
Children sit at a tent used as a makeshift school classroom in the town of Jindayris in the northwest of Syria’s Aleppo province (AFP via Getty)

A year after northwest Syria was struck by deadly earthquakes – that also hit Turkey – a vulnerable population is still grappling with the consequences in a country already devastated by years of civil war.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, more than 4,500 deaths and 8,700 injuries were reported in northwest Syria, with thousands being made homeless as more than 10,600 buildings were partially or totally destroyed. Some of the worst quake-hit areas were also those most devastated by the conflict, including the city of Aleppo. The UN says 6,000 people were killed across the whole country. The 7.8-magnitude earthquake on 6 February 2023 also killed more than 50,000 people across Turkey.

Yasser Abu Ammar, a member of White Helmets, the Syrian rescue group, from the town of Darat Izza in northern Aleppo province, vividly remembers stepping outside his home after feeling the strong tremors.

“The scenes of destruction I saw were horrifying,” the 40-year-old tells The Independent. “I felt despair, frustration, and helplessness in the face of such a catastrophe.”

Alongside a team, Ammar divided the city into sectors, distributed teams, requested reinforcements, and initiated search and rescue operations.

“One of the scenes that deeply affected me was finding a 10-year-old girl alive under the rubble of a two-story building,” he says. “We worked for over 48 hours, trying to reach her, comforting her, providing first aid, water, and food while attempting to remove the collapsed ceilings,” he adds. “After two days, the only way to rescue her was to amputate her foot. It was heartbreaking.”

Even though Ammar has spent years responding to emergencies, he says the earthquake was the “most significant event” in his life.

Yasser Abu Ammar says that the earthquake was the ‘most significant event in his life’ (Supplied)

“The level of destruction, casualties, and injuries exceeded my capacity to bear,” he says.

In the days following the earthquakes, there was criticism over the delays in aid getting into Syria, with the UN saying they had to wait for permission from the Syrian government.

“The failed international response to the earthquake, which left Syrian groups on the ground alone to save lives in the critical days after the earthquake struck, has only been compounded by a year of neglect,” Ranim Ahmed of The Syria Campaign human rights organisation tells The Independent. “The past year has seen no end to the suffering of civilians who are grieving the loss of thousands.”

In the year since the earthquake hit, the UN’s World Food Programme has had to halt its general food assistance aid delivery across the whole of Syria as part of a global humanitarian funding crunch. It will continue some cash and nutrition support but 1.3 million people in the northwest have lost food deliveries they relied on.

The earthquakes exacerbated the effects of the 13-year civil war. Instead of focusing on trying to recover after the earthquake, people in parts of northwest Syria – opposition-held areas – have been living in fear for their lives of possible Syrian army strikes.

“It [doesn’t] allow us to fully recover from the past 13 years of war, let alone the earthquake,” Ammar says. “They keep us living in a state of fear, always working to rebuild our lives, but never able to fully move on.”

Several days after the earthquakes in February, by which point 434 schools had been damaged, Abeer Mahmoud Khalil Ahmed returned to teach pupils at a local public school.

When the children felt the aftershocks in the wake of the earthquakes, they asked Ahmed if the building would fall on them and if they would die.

As months passed, more children dropped out of school as the impact of the earthquakes continued and the bombing intensified. In June 2023, nearly half of school-aged children in northwest Syria were not in school.

Abeer Mahmoud Khalil Ahmed’s students were scared that their school would fall down in the wake of the earthquakes (Supplied)

“As adults, we have to get used to adapting to the frightening situation of frequent bombings and earthquakes,” she says. “Can you imagine the situation of children who live a childhood full of intense fear and constant terror about what is happening on Earth and in the sky? Children face extreme difficulties in adapting to the current, unnatural situation. It exceeds the ability of their minds to comprehend.”

During the past year, Ahmed has seen the education of children deteriorate. Schools have cracks all over them. Teachers and students have died, leading to “psychological disorders” in children who lived. Speech problems like stuttering, nightmares, and involuntary urination have all increased in her students. Children injured during the earthquakes and bombings are struggling to access education.

“But the most frustrating thing has been the death of children [in the earthquake and continuous bombings] who were students in our school,” she says. “This is the reality we live in. Every day we lose a child who was in school dreaming of becoming a doctor, while now he or she is dead.”

When Marwa Al-Salloum established Marouna in 2018, a large and safe family home that brings together Syrian women from exile and displacement, she hoped that it would provide a place of peace for all who entered.

When the earthquake hit, the centre spent four months providing tents, food, clothing, and other necessities for women.

Marwa Al-Salloum trained teams of women to provide support to families suffering with loss (Supplied)

“We put together a mobile puppetry theatre show to provide psychological support activities to children in shelter centres and affected areas to help them cope with their trauma,” the 30-year-old says.

Having qualified to work as a professional providing psychological support, Al-Salloum trained teams of women to provide support to families suffering from loss.

One of her greatest concerns in the aftermath of the earthquakes and in the midst of conflict is that women will lose their power.

Women and girls’ rights have been an unseen casualty of the conflict and earthquakes, according to the United Nations Population Fund. There are concerns about increased discrimination and inequalities that continue to limit women’s prospects, exposing them to increased risk of sexual exploitation and abuse.

Women whose husbands have been killed, disappeared or gone missing, are particularly vulnerable, with 92 per cent of female-headed households living in displacement camps in Syria reporting insufficient ability or complete inability to meet basic needs.

“What I fear most now is that women will lose their ability to give due to the marginalisation of their roles in a society that suffers from political, military, economic, and social oppression,” Al-Salloum says. “Eliminating women’s power and effectiveness would mean a dry and dying society.”

As the hospital she was working in shook from the earthquakes, Dr Ikram Habboush, a doctor working in northwest Syria with the Syrian American Medical Society, could only think about the newborn babies in the incubators.

“All I was thinking about was how I could help them,” the 40-year-old tells The Independent.

For years, Dr Habboush has tried to provide the best treatment at her maternity hospital as supplies dwindle. After the earthquake and with the civil war, the needs were higher, but the resources were depleted.

“We need more doctors, nurses, medical supplies, and drugs,” she says.

The mothers and babies who make it to Habboush are the lucky ones, but there are hundreds unable to access various types of necessary medical treatments.

“People have no place to live in safety,” she says. “They are stuck in camps.”

When these internally displaced people get sick, Habboush says they “don’t have money to seek treatment”.

“This becomes another disaster for them,” she says.

The healthcare system in northwest Syria, already underfunded and devastated by the war, suffered a major blow when the earthquakes hit.

An estimated 53 health facilities were fully or partly damaged, and the ones that remained were overwhelmed with patients, making it difficult to provide timely medical care to those who needed it most.

Health facilities were ill-equipped to handle to surge in demand for services, healthcare personnel were overstretched, and medicine and medical supplies were lacking.

Despite the setbacks, Habboush keeps pouring herself out for her patients.

“I hope that the future will be better than now,” she says.

Those working in Syria are tired but continue to be a “ray of hope for Syrians”, according to Ahmed at the Syria Campaign.

“World leaders have a moral responsibility to end their unbelievable indifference towards targeted attacks on civilians and to ensure adequate aid funding to avert the growing humanitarian crisis,” Ahmed concludes. “At the end of a terrible year, the tireless work of Syrian civil society groups embedded in their communities is a ray of hope for Syrians and sets an example for all of us. The world needs to come together to support their efforts.”

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