As Turkey promises swift reconstruction post quake, Syrians reel under slow aid

A teenage boy holds food rations that he found in the rubble of buildings, in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake in the rebel-held town of Harem, in Idlib governorate, Syria, February 14, 2023. Photo: Reuters

Harem/Jandaris: Turkey said it would demolish buildings heavily damaged by a huge earthquake last week and swiftly start a mammoth reconstruction effort, with thousands of families struggling to survive amid the rubble and freezing conditions.

Rescuers, who flew in to save people trapped in the debris, were starting to pack, although one woman was pulled out of a collapsed building on Wednesday after being buried for 222 hours.

In neighbouring Syria's opposition-held northwest, already suffering from more than a decade of bombardment, the earthquake left many fending for themselves amid the rubble, with aid slowed by the complex politics of humanitarian assistance there.

The combined death toll in the two countries has climbed over 41,000, and millions are in need of humanitarian aid, with many survivors having been left homeless in near-freezing winter temperatures. Rescues are now few and far between.

In Turkey's southern Hatay province, half of the buildings have either collapsed, been heavily damaged, or need to be demolished quickly, the government said.

"We will quickly demolish what needs to be demolished and build safe houses," Turkey's Environment and Urbanisation Minister Murat Kurum tweeted.

The government encouraged people to go back home, if and when authorities have deemed their building safe, "in order to start getting back to normal," Tourism Minister Nuri Ersoy told a news conference in Malatya, some 160 km from the epicentre of the earthquake.

'Get us out!'

Across the border, in Syria, relief efforts have been hampered by a civil war that has splintered the country and divided regional and global powers.

Though a single border crossing from Turkey to Syria was open after the quake, the UN did not send aid through for days, citing logistical issues.

"The situation is really tragic," Abdulrahman Mohammad, a displaced Syrian originally from the neighbouring province of Aleppo, said in Idlib, in the country's northwest, where many had found refuge in the past decade from other war-torn provinces.

Parts of the provinces of Idlib and adjacent Aleppo held by Turkey-backed rebels suffered the bulk of the quake's casualties in Syria: over 4,400 of a death toll of more than 5,800, according to the United Nations and government authorities.

"Anyone who is working as a labourer and renting a house... If you need $10 a day in expenses and you can barely get that – how are you supposed to rebuild?" Mohammad, originally from Aleppo, said.

On Tuesday, eight days after the quake, a second border crossing for aid delivery was opened after Syrian President Bashar al Assad gave his assent, marking a shift for Damascus which has long opposed cross-border aid deliveries to the rebel enclave.

Search and rescue teams work on a collapsed building, in the aftermath of the deadly earthquake, in Adiyaman, Turkey February 15, 2023. Photo: Reuters

But the trucks included none of the heavy equipment and machines that rescuers say they need to remove rubble faster – and that could have helped with reconstruction.

"What happened to us – it's the first time it's happened around the world. There was an earthquake and the international community and the UN don't help," said Raed Saleh, who heads the 'White Helmets' rescue force operating in opposition-held areas.

Saleh and others in the northwest said more lives could have been saved in Syria if the outside world had acted faster.

In Idlib, Walid Ibrahim lost more than two dozen of his family members – among them his brother, his cousin, and all their children.

A view shows the aftermath of the deadly earthquake in Hatay, Turkey, February 9, 2023. Photo: Reuters

"We were removing rock after rock and finding nothing underneath. People were under the concrete screaming, 'Get us out! Get us out!' But we'd come up with empty hands," he said. "Your hands alone aren't enough."

Further to the north, in Jandaris, rescuers said they had not found anyone alive under the rubble since February 9 but continued to search. Residents said there were still people trapped.

Hassan Mohamed, a civil defence volunteer, said that while efforts to find survivors in the most badly hit areas in northwest Syria had finished, rescue workers were still deploying in response to reports of people missing. "We are also going to areas where there has been no internet," he said.

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