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After Quake, War-Hit Syrians Struggle To Get Aid, Rebuild

Almost one week after the devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck northern Syria and neighbouring Turkey, the UN has acknowledged an international failure to help Syrian quake victims.

Syria Turkey Earthquake Displaced
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After years of war, residents of areas in northwest Syria struck by a massive earthquake are grappling with their new and worsening reality.

Almost one week after the devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck northern Syria and neighbouring Turkey, the UN has acknowledged an international failure to help Syrian quake victims.

In Atareb, a town that Syrian rebels still hold after years of fighting government troops, survivors dug through the debris of their destroyed homes on Sunday, picking up the remnants of their shattered lives and looking for ways to heal after the latest in a series of humanitarian disasters to hit the war-battered area.

Excavators lifted rubble and residents with shovels and picks destroyed columns to even out a demolished building.

Dozens of newly displaced families gathered for hot meal handouts from local volunteers and the local opposition-run government. A private citizen went tent to tent to give out wads of cash in a makeshift shelter — the equivalent of about $18 — to each family. 

Syrians were doing what they have honed over years of crises: relying on themselves to pick up the pieces and move on. 

"We are licking our own wounds," said Hekmat Hamoud, who had been displaced twice by Syria's ongoing conflict, before finding himself trapped for hours beneath rubble.

The major earthquake that struck Monday hit hard Syria's northwestern rebel-held enclave, where over four million people for years have struggled to cope with ruthless airstrikes and rampant poverty.

Many are internally displaced from the ongoing conflict and live in crowded tent settlements or buildings weakened by past bombings. The quake killed over 2,000 people in the area, and displaced many more for a second time, forcing some to sleep under olive groves in the frigid winter weather.

"l lost everything," said father of two Fares Ahmed Abdo, 25, who survived the quake but his new home and body shop where he fixed motorcycles for a living were destroyed. Now, he, his wife, two boys and ill mother are crammed in a small tent, once again displaced with barely a shelter that has no power and no toilets. "I am waiting for any help." 

UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths, visiting the Turkish-Syrian border Sunday, acknowledged in a statement that Syrians have been left "looking for international help that hasn't arrived."

"We have so far failed the people in north-west Syria. They rightly feel abandoned," he said.

"My duty and our obligation is to correct this failure as fast as we can."

Northwest Syria relies almost entirely on aid for survival, but post-quake international assistance has been slow to reach the area. The first UN convoy to reach the area from Turkey was on Thursday, three days after the earthquake. 

Before that, the only cargo coming across the Bab al-Hawa crossing on the Turkey-Syria border was a steady stream of bodies of earthquake victims coming home for burial — Syrian refugees who had fled the war in their country and settled in Turkey but perished in the quake.

UN aid sent from Turkey to Syria is only authorised to enter via the Bab al-Hawa crossing, and logistics were complicated by pressure on the roads, many of them destroyed by the quake. While technically, international aid can also be sent from Syrian government-held areas to rebel-held areas in the northwest, this faces its own set of hurdles and was at best a trickle.

Critics of the government of President Bashar Assad say that aid funnelled through government-held areas in Syria faces bureaucracy and the risk that authorities will misappropriate or divert the aid to support people close to the government.

A convoy carrying UN aid that had been scheduled to cross into rebel-held Idlib from the government area on Sunday was cancelled after its entry was blocked by the Qaida-affiliated rebel group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which dominates the area. An administrative arm of the group said in a statement declined to receive assistance from government areas. 

Strips of northern Syria are held by a patchwork of sometimes-conflicting groups, further hindering aid deliveries. Turkish-backed rebels have blocked aid convoys from reaching earthquake victims that were sent by rival US-backed Kurdish groups in neighbouring areas.

"We are trying to tell everyone, put politics aside. This is the time to unite behind the common effort to support the Syrian people," Geir Pedersen, the UN special envoy for Syria, who landed in Damascus Sunday, told reporters.

While aid has been slow to reach the northwest, a number of countries that had cut ties with Damascus during Syria's civil war have sent help to government areas. Arab countries including Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have stepped in. UAE's foreign minister visited Damascus and meet with Assad Sunday.

The head of the White Helmets, a civil defence group operating in the rebel-held northwest, Raed al-Saleh, said Griffiths' visit was "too little, too late." He said calls for international assistance by local rescue teams had gone unheeded for days "and during this time, countless lives have been needlessly lost."

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Al-Saleh met with Griffiths to demand the opening of additional cross-border routes for aid to enter without waiting for authorisation from the UN Security Council.

Abdel-Haseeb Abdel-Raheem, 34, sifted through the rubble of his aunt's destroyed four-story building in the town of Atareb in opposition-run northern Aleppo. He had pulled the bodies of his aunt and her husband from beneath the rubble hours after the quake. Now he went back to find any valuables, using his hands and dipping his body inside the skeleton of the destroyed building to pull out blankets and pillows, as well as some clothes.

The 34-year-old said he had no illusion that humanitarian assistance will solve his problems.

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"We have no hope anymore," he said.

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