Syrians living in the rebel-held northwest region have decried the lack of humanitarian aid for victims of two powerful earthquakes that struck Turkey and Syria, describing catastrophic scenes in an area already ravaged by 12 years of civil war.
On Sunday, United Nations aid chief Martin Griffiths acknowledged the shortcomings, saying the Syrian population in the territory feel “abandoned” because the assistance they had hoped for had not yet arrived.
“We have so far failed the people in northwest Syria. They rightly feel abandoned. Looking for international help that hasn’t arrived,” he said in a tweet.
“My duty and our obligation is to correct this failure as fast as we can. That’s my focus now,” he added during a visit to the border area, five days after devastating magnitude 7.8 and 7.6 earthquakes – and numerous aftershocks – rocked Turkey and Syria, killing more than 33,000 people including at least 4,500 in Syria alone.
Before the earthquakes, humanitarian aid had entered the northwest mainly through the Bab al-Hawa land crossing with Turkey, the only internationally agreed-upon access point.
But no aid convoys arrived for the first three days, with the UN saying roads on the Turkish side were unpassable. The first trucks finally started coming through via Turkey on Thursday, but needs still far outstrip supplies.
However, according to Raed al-Saleh, head of the Syria Civil Defence or White Helmets, the two convoys that went through on Thursday and Friday – a total of 20 trucks – carried “scheduled aid”, which is periodically delivered to families in refugee camps and which includes sugar, flour and cooking oil.
“It wasn’t aid for the families and people in the towns and cities which were in the disaster zone of the quake,” he said on Saturday.
On Sunday, al-Saleh responded to Griffiths’s tweeted apology, saying: “After meeting today with @UNReliefChief at Turkish-Syrian border, we appreciate the apology for the shortcomings and mistakes.”
He went on to urge the UN to work to open more land crossings into northwestern Syria other than Bab al-Hawa, which is the only one approved by a UN Security Council resolution.
Aid to government-held areas
The Syrian government in Damascus has also been receiving aid from international donors, and there is still uncertainty about whether that will be equitably distributed to all the stricken parts of the country, including the rebel-held northwest.
Officials from the UN entered the government-controlled city of Aleppo on Saturday, after issuing a warning saying up to 5.3 million people in the country may have been made homeless as a result of the quakes.
World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is also in Aleppo, arriving on a plane carrying about 35 tonnes of vital medical equipment, according to Syria’s state-run SANA news agency, which added that a second plane will arrive in two days.
On a visit to Kahramanmaras, the epicentre of the initial quake, Griffiths said he hoped aid delivered to the Syrian government would go to both government and opposition-held areas, but this was “not clear yet”.
But in the rebel-held northwest, where four million people need humanitarian relief, there have been no aid deliveries from government-controlled areas.
The severe delay in aid coming through has prompted rescuers and members of the White Helmets to criticise the UN and the international community for not responding quickly enough to urgent needs.
There had been calls from the opposition for the opening of more land crossings since the day of the earthquakes, but Bab al-Hawa remains the only recognised one until a UN decision is sought.
“We have sent out requests for relief aid to various countries and world organisations, including the UN, since the quake first happened in order to save and rescue as many people under the rubble as possible,” said Fatima Obeid, a 26-year-old White Helmets volunteer.
“The situation is unbearably disastrous. From 12 years of war to this earthquake, the Syrian people in this region are suffering.”
Speaking from the town of Sarmada, Obeid said whole families are buried under the rubble of collapsed and destroyed buildings.
“The hardest moment for me personally was finding a husband and wife, both dead under the rubble with their arms sheltering their young son – who was alive,” she said.
Obeid said that the 72-hour window after the quake struck was crucial, and now the chances of finding more people alive are very slim.
“We could have saved many more people if we had the technology and heavy machinery needed to lift debris,” she said. “All of the aid and necessary provisions given to the overcrowded relief centres are donated by volunteers, civil organisations and charities on the ground.”
‘Biased humanitarian action’
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged the Security Council – which will meet next week to discuss Syria – to authorise the opening of new cross-border aid points between Turkey and Syria.
The Syrian government announced on Friday that it approved the delivery of humanitarian assistance to quake-hit areas outside its control. But a UN spokesperson said on Sunday that earthquake aid from government-held parts of Syria into the northwest territory had been held up by “approval issues” with the hardline armed group Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
A UN spokesperson in Damascus declined to comment, saying the UN “continues to work with relevant parties to have access to the area”.
An HTS official in the northwest’s Idlib region told Reuters news agency it would not allow any shipments from government-held parts of Syria, and aid would be coming in from Turkey to the north.
“Turkey has opened all the roads and we won’t allow the regime to take advantage of the situation to show they are helping,” the HTS member said.
Al-Saleh of the White Helmets denounced what he called “aid politics” at the expense of the most vulnerable and in need.
“Humanitarian aid doesn’t enter this region unless there is a vote from the UN Security Council, negotiations, blackmail – all the while compromising Syrian lives,” he said.
The lack of food and clean drinking water, compounded with no shelters and the bitter subzero temperatures, is pushing a largely displaced population who fled the war to the brink.
Al-Saleh said he expected the UN to be “neutral” in its humanitarian work and not “politically biased”.
“Many people’s lives were dependent on it, and it is the main reason for the huge number of deaths,” he said.
“The victims were let down by the UN, which dithered for days, saying the roads were blocked and the crossings were closed. The UN did not hear the screams of the people trapped under the collapsed buildings, crying out for help,” he said, his voice breaking.
“We had hoped to get just one UN official to visit the area. But there is evidently a bias regarding humanitarian action.”
‘Children are crying’
At least 1,300 buildings in the northwest territory were completely destroyed, and 500 others partially destroyed, with some towns and villages now resembling ghost towns, al-Saleh said.
“The entire situation is catastrophic,” he said, referring to people sleeping outside on the roads or inside their cars because they don’t have any shelter.
“Children are crying from the freezing winter cold. It is those who barely have anything that are giving us what little they have, such as donating their fuel to us, even if they themselves lose what little heat they had in the first place.”
On the Turkish side of Bab al-Hawa, in Cilvegozu, Al Jazeera’s Stefanie Dekker said that instead of aid trucks entering Syria, only the bodies of Syrians who died in the quake in Turkey are being transported in.
“What we’ve been seeing is black body bags being handed over on the back of trucks and then driven into Syria to be buried at home,” she said.
“We spoke to officials on the other side of the border, the Bab al-Hawa crossing, and they said so far 950 bodies of Syrians killed in the earthquake have been brought across to be buried at home.”
Dekker described “heartbreaking” scenes of relatives opening up the body bags to see death certificates on their loved ones.
“Death is everywhere here,” she said.
White Helmets in Syria criticise the UN and international community for a slow response, lack of aid after earthquakes.