We get an update from Damascus, Syria, on last week’s devastating earthquakes, as the United Nations warns the death toll in Turkey and northwest Syria will top at least 50,000. The U.N. also says the earthquake rescue phase is “coming to a close” and that efforts are expected to turn to providing shelter, food and care to survivors. Millions have been left homeless by the deadly quakes that struck the region, which includes the Syrian city of Aleppo, last week. Syrian refugees who were displaced by the war in Syria that began 12 years ago now face a compounded humanitarian crisis. The situation is a “crisis on top of a crisis,” says Emma Forster, Syria policy and communications manager for the Norwegian Refugee Council.
AMY GOODMAN: The United Nations is warning the death toll in Turkey and northwest Syria from last week’s devastating earthquakes will top at least 50,000. As of Monday morning, over 36,000 deaths had been reported, and the number keeps rising.
The U.N.’s head of aid operations said the earthquake rescue phase is coming to a close, and efforts will turn to providing shelter, food and care to survivors. Millions have been left homeless, including many Syrian refugees who were displaced by the war in Syria that began almost 12 years ago.
At a hospital in the Syrian city of Idlib, Dr. Mostafa al-Yamany described working around the clock for the past week to help victims of the earthquake.
DR. MOSTAFA AL-YAMANY: [translated] There were a lot of very tough cases, one of which was a 3-month-old baby who lost his entire family. He’s the only survivor, and he was in critical condition. … The resources at our disposal are limited compared to the scale of the disaster. And in this area, in the rebel-held areas, we don’t have the infrastructure or hospitals to receive such numbers of patients.
AMY GOODMAN: On Sunday, United Nations aid chief Martin Griffiths traveled to Aleppo, Syria, to survey the damage.
MARTIN GRIFFITHS: Behind us is just one small piece of the terrible tragedy that came here on the 6th of February. I have been hearing stories here in Aleppo this morning that chill you with what happened on those early hours of that terrible day. And what is the most striking here is, even in Aleppo, which has suffered so much these many years, this moment, that moment a week or more ago, was about the worst that these people have experienced — people who lost their children, some of whom escaped. Others stayed in the building. The trauma of the people we spoke to was visible. And this is a trauma which the world needs to heal. And the reason we’re here is because we want to raise money for the brave organizations which are helping these people of Aleppo.
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Damascus, the capital of Syria, where we’re joined by Emma Forster, Syria policy and communications manager of the Norwegian Refugee Council.
Emma, welcome to Democracy Now! This absolutely catastrophic time for the people of Syria, particularly in the northwest. Can you talk about what they are facing right now as they deal with not only the earthquakes but the ravages of war for over a decade?
EMMA FORSTER: Yes. As has already been mentioned, the situation in the northwest is absolutely heartbreaking. We’re hearing that up to 5 — over 5 million people could be left homeless. People are on the streets. They are without shelter. We’re hearing of hospitals that have been destroyed. The ones that are open are over capacity. There isn’t the staff or the equipment to treat people. Schools are being used as collective shelters, which means that schools have stopped. Many have lost loved ones. And there is an urgent need for more international assistance, which is currently lacking.
AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about what the people of Syria face? What? Ninety percent of the people live below the poverty line already, the lack of electricity — this is extremely serious when it comes to the freezing cold.
EMMA FORSTER: Yeah. So, already prior to the earthquake, the situation was that a huge percentage of the Syrian population was already beneath the poverty line, especially in the northwest. There was already a major lack of fuel in the country, which was putting all public services at the point of collapse. There wasn’t electricity in many places for more than a couple of hours a day. People are reliant largely on generators to heat their homes, which they didn’t have. Before the earthquake, people were burning anything they could find to provide heat and to cook basic meals. And now all of this has been aggravated by the earthquake.
AMY GOODMAN: The latest news that on Friday the Syrian government approved aid deliveries to the rebel-held northwest, after major delays in the war-torn region. If you can talk about the area that was hit, divided by the rebel-held territory and, you know, the territory that the government controls, but what this meant for the people who live there?
EMMA FORSTER: Sure. So, the earthquake hit both government-controlled and nongovernment-controlled areas, hitting — the worst affected areas are in the nongovernment-controlled areas in the northwest of the country. And already prior to the earthquake, there was only one area that was — one border crossing that was being used between Türkiye and Syria for aid to be able to come in through the U.N. And so, this area was affected by the earthquake, so there were several days of delays before any aid was able to come through that crossing.
And now aid has started to come in slowly, but it’s nowhere near enough. And at the same time, the aid that does come through from that area is often reliant on the market that is available in Turkey, and now, obviously, the markets in Turkey are highly affected, which is going to hinder what can be procured and brought in for the response in the northwest of Syria. At the same time, in government-controlled areas, yes, there has been a blanket approval, apparently, for aid to be delivered into areas that are not under government control, but there have still been delays in approvals, and we’re not seeing aid going in at the speed that it needs to.
AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at the tweets of your organization, the Norwegian Refugee Council: “There is NO TIME for hesitation. Provide the funds that Syrians need and save lives now,” talking to donors. Also, the whole issue of access, both from Syria and from Turkey, to help the people who have been so devastated for so long, Emma.
EMMA FORSTER: Yes, that’s correct. What we need now is more funding immediately in order to be able to scale up our operations. We are present across the country, and we are ready to respond, but we lack the funding. Currently we have funding to get us through this initial phase, and we started immediately responding with the existing stock that we had to be able to implement immediately, but we need an urgent scale-up of funding in order for us to be able to scale up our response to the existing needs. At the same time, this is a crisis on top of a crisis, and the humanitarian needs that were there before the earthquake have not gone away. So we need donors to scale up their funding, provide new funding and not reallocate existing funding, because the people of Syria were in need before the earthquake, they still need us, and we still need to be able to go on and implement our existing programs.
AMY GOODMAN: Emma Forster, we want to thank you for being with us from Damascus, the capital of Syria, Syria policy and communications manager for the Norwegian Refugee Council, based in Damascus.
Next up, we’ll speak to a U.N. special rapporteur calling for international sanctions to be lifted to help the people of Syria. Stay with us.
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