AL-TALOUL, Syria: A village in Syria’s Idlib has been swept away after its local dam, damaged by Monday’s massive earthquakes, suddenly gave way on Thursday. Within hours, the rising floodwaters had engulfed homes and displaced the entire population.
Following the earthquakes, which hit southeast Turkiye and northern Syria in short succession earlier this week, residents of the village near Salqin have been forced to take shelter in a local olive grove after the Orontes River inundated their homes.
Najmuddine bin Abdul Rabiei, a 26-year-old resident, told Arab News his village has suffered significant damage caused by the earthquake. He said villagers were in desperate need of humanitarian assistance, including tents to protect them from the elements.
“All our houses are drowned in water,” Abdul Rabiei told Arab News. “Where can the people go? They have no shelter.”
Fearing the same fate as the people of Al-Taloul, residents of other villages along the Orontes River have fled to higher ground in Jisr Al-Shughour and Darkush.
The magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck parts of southeastern Turkiye, northwestern Syria and neighboring areas in the early hours of Monday, followed by a magnitude 7.5 quake just hours later.
At least 19,388 people have been confirmed killed in Turkiye as of Friday, according to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, surpassing the toll from the country’s devastating 1999 earthquake. At least 3,377 people are known to have died in Syria.
In rebel-held northwestern Syria, rescue workers said more than 2,037 people died and 2,950 were injured, according to the Washington Post. In government-controlled Syria, state media reported 1,347 deaths and 2,295 people injured.
Although rescuers and aid workers have been arriving in neighboring Turkiye to help with the relief effort, precious little assistance has arrived in northern Syria, home to approximately 4.5 million people, 90 percent of whom were already dependent on humanitarian aid.
“The international community has pledged substantial assistance to Turkiye, and rightly so — but as per usual, Syrians appear to be an afterthought,” Charles Lister, a senior fellow and director of the Syria and countering terrorism and extremism programs at the Middle East Institute, wrote in Foreign Policy magazine this week.
For communities like Al-Taloul, this means many have been forced to sleep outdoors in freezing temperatures.
Areas of northwestern Syria have recently been experiencing temperatures as low as minus 4. The winter freeze has left thousands of people spending nights in their cars or huddling around fires that have become ubiquitous across the quake-hit region.
The Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, has been deployed to Al-Taloul to help evacuate civilians trapped in vehicles and buildings and to clear the local sewage network in order to drain the floodwaters.
The White Helmets on Friday accused the UN of botching its response in northwest Syria.
“The UN has committed a crime against the Syrian people in the northwest,” the group’s chief Raed Saleh told the Agence France-Presse news agency, claiming UN agencies had not delivered any quake-specific relief to survivors since the disaster hit before dawn on Monday.
“The UN must apologize to the Syrian people,” Saleh added.
The people of Al-Taloul were already impoverished prior to the quake, having lived effectively under siege in the opposition-held region for the past 12 years of civil war in Syria.
Hatem Al-Ali, a 62-year-old resident, told Arab News the earthquake is the final straw for the community.
“Al-Taloul is an extremely poor village where people have nothing,” he said. “The money is gone, and whatever people had has gone up in smoke. And believe me, some people cannot even purchase a loaf of bread.”
The most urgent need right now, he says, is for sufficient shelter, food, and clean drinking water to prevent hypothermia, hunger, and the spread of disease. “We ask the people in charge to help these poor people,” Al-Ali added.
More than a decade of civil war and aerial bombardment had already destroyed hospitals and prompted electricity and water shortages in Syria’s northwest, leaving communities wholly unprepared for a natural disaster of this magnitude.
“After 12 years of brutal conflict in which the Syrian regime has used almost every weapon available against its own population, the level of destruction meted out by the earthquake upon Syria’s northwest has no close comparison,” Lister wrote in his Foreign Policy article.
“When it comes specifically to opposition-controlled northwestern Syria, a natural disaster like this could not have hit a more vulnerable population. Before the earthquake, the region represented one of the world’s most acute humanitarian crises.
“More than 4.5 million civilians live there, in a pocket of territory that represents no more than 4 percent of Syria — and nearly 3 million of them are displaced. At least 65 percent of basic infrastructure lay destroyed or heavily damaged.”
Even before the quake, 2 million people were already lacking adequate housing during the harsh Syrian winter. This includes 800,000 people — most of them children — who live in makeshift shelters without reliable access to heat, electricity, clean water or sanitation services.
“This is truly a nightmare scenario,” Lister said. “A catastrophic natural disaster strikes one of the world’s most vulnerable populations, leaving thousands of leveled buildings and thousands of casualties amid bitter winter weather, and not a single route is open for aid.”
The UN World Food Program has appealed for $77 million to provide food rations and hot meals for 874,000 people affected by the deadly quake.
The number in need of aid “includes 284,000 newly displaced people in Syria and 590,000 people in Turkiye, which includes 45,000 refugees and 545,000 internally displaced people,” it said.
Mike Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization’s Health Emergencies Program, on Friday bemoaned Syria’s “forgotten crisis.”
As the WHO prepared to fly medical supplies to Syria from Dubai, Ryan said a huge backlog of aid was waiting to reach Syria’s rebel-held northwest.
“The world’s forgotten about Syria,” Ryan told reporters in Dubai, during preparations for the aid flight. “Frankly, the earthquake’s brought attention back. But those millions of people in Syria have been struggling now for years. That’s become a forgotten crisis.”
Syria is now facing a “secondary disaster” of lives lost due to a lack of medical supplies, said Ryan.
“We have to recognize the scale of this disaster is so large, it’s overwhelming everyone’s capacity. If they don’t have equipment, they can’t do their job — it’s like asking a fireman to rush to a fire without a fire hose.”
Turkiye’s Bab Al-Hawa, the only border crossing through which UN humanitarian aid is allowed into northern Syria, was initially closed as a result of damage sustained in the earthquake.
As the bulk of the aid entering Syria must pass through Damascus, which strictly controls its distribution to governorates, the closure of Bab Al-Hawa made it even harder to deliver adequate and timely aid to the hardest-hit areas.
The first international aid deliveries to rebel-held northwestern Syria following the quake arrived on Thursday. The Syrian government said it had also approved the delivery of humanitarian aid to quake-hit areas outside its control.
A second UN aid convoy crossed into rebel-held Syria from Turkiye on Friday. The 14-truck convoy carried non-food items such as “humanitarian kits, solar lamps, blankets and other assistance,” International Organization for Migration spokesman Paul Dillon said in a statement.
The aid “will be sufficient for about 1,100 families in the quake-hit areas in Idlib,” he added.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has urged the Security Council to authorize the opening of new cross-border humanitarian aid points between Turkiye and Syria. Turkiye said it was working on opening two new routes into rebel-held parts of Syria.