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Turkey-Syria earthquake: The UN must intervene now, or more people will die

The people in Syria have been left abandoned by the international community which must now provide urgent humanitarian support
A man sits atop rubble, in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake in the rebel-held town of Harem, in Idlib governorate, Syria, 14 February 2023 (Reuters)

It is with profound anger that we, humanitarian physicians who have been working in Syria for 12 years, call on you to act.

The earthquake in Turkey and Syria is an unprecedented catastrophe. The international response has been inadequate, on far too small a scale for such a disaster. In northwestern Syria, people who have already endured terrible suffering have literally been abandoned to their fate.

The international community has failed to grasp the immensity of the devastation caused by this terrible earthquake

Seven days after the initial earthquake and aftershocks, the rescuers, medical workers, and humanitarian organisations on the ground are the only ones providing assistance in the region. They have not received any support from the international community and the United Nations has not declared a state of emergency.

The international community has failed to grasp the immensity of the devastation caused by this terrible earthquake.

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Following the announcement of the opening of new humanitarian corridors, it is imperative that this opening is a decision made by the UN, and that these crossing points are only under the control of the international community. This is the only way to ensure that humanitarian aid can be delivered to the people of northwestern Syria.

One can only regret the slowness of a late decision that should have been made the very next day. At this stage, efforts are still very insufficient and inadequate in the face of the cataclysm that this earthquake represents.

Left abandoned

With current extreme cold weather, a large-scale international response is needed and must be deployed without further delay. More than seven days after the earthquake, the people of Idlib are left feeling abandoned and must be supported as soon as possible.

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In northwestern Syria, the earthquake struck a region that has already been ravaged by 12 years of war. The gutted buildings that were inhabited by the local population - as well as displaced people who had no other options - have now been completely destroyed.

In Jindayris and Sarmada, entire villages have been wiped off the map. When the earthquake struck in the middle of the night, at 4am local time, those who were able to flee outside found themselves in below-freezing temperatures with patches of snow on the ground, carrying nothing but the clothes on their backs.

They have been abandoned without food, drinking water, or heat. Yet again, they have lost everything. They had already seen multiple buildings bombed for a day or more. But how can they face an earthquake that destroyed thousands of buildings in a fraction of a second?

From day one, international aid has been inadequate. For the first three days, the lack of lifting and support equipment forced rescuers to dig through the ruins with their bare hands. Now, the crucial 72-hour window to find survivors has closed.

An urgent need

If we wait any longer to intervene, more people will die from a lack of care and assistance. The needs are immense and urgent. The time to act is now, not tomorrow, to rebuild over the bodies of the dead.

Medical workers in hospitals, medical facilities, and mobile clinics are overwhelmed. They are short on everything. For now, they can only treat the wounded with the reserves available in warehouses.

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The survivors who have been left homeless also need emergency assistance: tents, heating, food packages, and medical care.

But the war has destroyed local hospitals and the lack of funding has forced medical facilities to close. So how can we provide an emergency response to this massive earthquake?

Cross-border humanitarian corridors must be reopened and operational. As we write this letter, only about 10 trucks have reached Syria, arriving five days after the earthquake.

Most of them carried supplies that were poorly suited to the current crisis because they had been planned far in advance. Those few deliveries are a mere drop in the bucket given the population’s immense needs in the wake of this catastrophe.

We therefore call on the UN and the international community to:

- Deliver large-scale emergency aid through the last humanitarian corridor that remains open, in Bab al-Hawa, and control the humanitarian corridor in Bab al-Salam, where thousands of people are living in tents in catastrophic conditions.
- Set up a mobile hospital at the Syria-Turkey border to provide care for earthquake victims who lack access to critical care, ventilation, and dialysis.
- Intervene in favor of an immediate ceasefire in Syria to facilitate assistance to the victims of the earthquake. On the day of the earthquake, as the village of Mare’ mourned its dead, it was bombarded in an odious, heartless attack.
- Actively follow international humanitarian law to provide comprehensive aid to all the victims in Syria, including the northwest of the country, Idlib and the surrounding region.

• Oussama al-Hussein, programme coordinator, Mehad (formerly UOSSM France), Atmeh camp, Idlib province, Syria
• Dr Ziad Alissa, president of Mehad (formerly UOSSM France), critical care anaesthesiologist 
• Dr Raphael Pitti, training director, Mehad (formerly UOSSM France), critical care anaesthesiologist, military medicine specialist

The views expressed in this letter belong to the signatories and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

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