Around 95% of the rebel-held region in northwestern Syria where devastating earthquakes struck last week has not yet been searched, a leading international aid organization has said.
“Areas of northwest Syria felt abandoned, because no search and rescue teams were able to enter,” Bahia Zrikem of the Norwegian Refugee Council said earlier this week.
“Only 5% of the affected areas were searched by the local organizations and volunteers,” said Zrikem, the group’s Syria policy and advocacy manager.
In contrast, across the border in hard-hit Turkey, 15,000 out of 19,000 buildings that collapsed had been inspected a week after the disaster, according to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Government teams had inspected 1.85 million homes and offices in 369,000 buildings located in the earthquake’s epicenter, he said in a speech Monday.
It was not possible to verify the Turkish government’s statement, but more than a week after the devastating earthquakes hit the region and killed more than 39,000, it is undeniable that aid and volunteers have flowed into Turkey but trickled into Syria.
In his first televised address since the temblors, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said Thursday that “the scale of the disaster and the duties we must undertake are much greater than available resources.”
But anger and frustration are mounting among residents and aid groups who say the international community has abandoned the rebel-held territories in northwestern Syria already ravaged by more than a decade of civil war. Shortages of vital equipment, fuel and medical care in addition to bitter subzero temperatures and an ongoing cholera outbreak will most likely prove deadly for earthquake survivors.
“The international community failed the Syrian people by not reacting fast enough, and not supporting the search and rescue teams,” Zrikem said. The Norwegian Refugee Council was founded in the aftermath of World War II and operates in 40 countries.
Now, with little hope of finding any more survivors in the rubble, particularly given the scarcity of the heavy machinery required for such operations, search and rescue efforts had wound down in the area Friday, the volunteer rescue group White Helmets said.
“We knew there were people under the ruins,” Yasser Nini, a team leader, told The Associated Press. “We heard their cries, but we did not have the equipment to rescue them.”
“Neither the international community nor nearby countries care,” said Yasser, who was left to sift through the rubble with his bare hands.
Bombed relentlessly by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, Russia and Iran-backed militias, 90% of the 4.4 million people living in the area in northwestern Syria rely on humanitarian aid, according to the World Food Program. Many had already been displaced by the conflict.
One thing that has hindered aid from getting through is damage to the route leading to the Bab-al-Hawa crossing, a humanitarian aid corridor and lifeline that has been the only way into the opposition-controlled sliver of northeastern Syria.
Aid has begun moving through Bab-al-Hawa, and Assad has agreed to open two additional crossing points from Turkey.
Still, the Syrian government and its backers in Moscow and Tehran have long insisted that all aid into Syria should come through Damascus, but with Assad still sanctioned by the United States and European countries, many are reluctant to send aid directly through his government.
That has contributed to delays, Zrikem said. Even though humanitarian aid is exempt from the sanctions, confusion and fears of violating the measures can slow the process. Parts of the northwest are also controlled by rebel groups that are considered terrorist organizations by the U.S., further hindering aid efforts, she added.
The first of the aid has now entered rebel-held Syria through the newly opened crossings, according to the Agence France-Presse news agency. Since the earthquakes, the White Helmets have received funding from several governments, including Britain, the Qatar Fund for Development and U.S.-funded humanitarian partners.
But the White Helmets criticized what they termed a “shocking” United Nations move to grant Assad approval over the aid deliveries, saying it gave him “free political gain.”
“The White Helmets received no support from the United Nations during the most critical moments of the rescue operations,” Raed Al Saleh said writing for CNN on Tuesday. “Even now we have no promise of assistance to restore our operational capacity and help the recovery and rehabilitation efforts.”
The decision to open additional crossings comes after the U.N. emergency relief coordinator, Martin Griffiths, visited the crossing between Turkey and Syria on Sunday.
“We have so far failed the people in northwest Syria,” he tweeted Sunday. “They rightly feel abandoned.”