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Syria Faces “Nightmare Situation” as Aid Stalls Amid Sanctions and Earthquake Death Toll Keeps Rising

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The death toll from the massive earthquakes that struck Turkey and Syria on February 6 is nearing 42,000 and continues to rise as many face a lack of shelter and access to aid. The effects are especially dire in northwest Syria, which was already facing a humanitarian crisis prior to the earthquakes after nearly 12 years of war. Othman Moqbel, CEO of Action for Humanity, the parent charity of Syria Relief, says other countries must do more to support Syrians. “We have [a] duty to support them. The international community needs to do more,” he says, adding that sanctions on Syria are further hampering the delivery of aid.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The death toll from last week’s massive earthquakes in Turkey and Syria is nearing 42,000 and continuing to rapidly rise. Over 36,000 deaths have been reported in Turkey, nearly 6,000 in Syria. The World Health Organization has described northwestern Syria as the, quote, “zone of greatest concern.” The area was already facing a humanitarian crisis after nearly 12 years of war. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has described the earthquakes in Turkey as the deadliest natural disaster in a NATO country since the alliance was formed. Survivors in Turkey say they’ve been left with nothing.

SURVIVOR 1: [translated] It was not like any other earthquake. The roads were destroyed. Our houses were demolished. There were no buildings left. Whole cities were flattened. Everything disappeared. We can feed ourselves here, but no one knows how we are going to live.

AMY GOODMAN: In the Syrian city of Latakia, one mother described being rescued after five days.

SURVIVOR 2: [translated] We were trapped for five days. We couldn’t move. We were calling God to save us. Me and my son were calling God to save us. Thank God that we survived. But my daughter left us. … When I was in the corridor, I told my daughter there is an earthquake. She ran. May her soul rest in peace. Three of us were stuck in the corridor, and then the rocks fell on us. My daughter directly died. May her soul rest in peace. Me and my son are alive. We were trapped. We couldn’t move between the ceiling and rubbles. We couldn’t move. We didn’t have food or water. We wanted water only. It was also dark, rubbles. We called for help a lot. No one heard us.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by two guests. Hişyar Özsoy is deputy chair of the Peoples’ Democratic Party and member of Turkish Parliament who is in southern Turkey. It is in Diyarbakir, the largest Kurdish-majority city in Turkey, where he has been helping with disaster relief since the earthquakes. And in Gaziantep, Turkey, Othman Moqbel is the CEO of Action for Humanity, the parent charity of Syria Relief. His recent piece for Middle East Eye is titled “What else should happen before the world takes Syrians’ suffering seriously?”

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Othman Moqbel, we’re going to begin with you. Now, we recognize there’s something like a four-second delay as you stand there on site in Gaziantep, which is really ground zero in Turkey, and yet so many Syrian refugees were already there before the earthquake. Can you talk about what’s happening there and what you think needs to happen?

OTHMAN MOQBEL: Thank you very much.

To be honest with you, I have seen in the last few days what I haven’t seen in all of my life. I have been working in the humanitarian sector for the last 25 years, and what I have seen is totally devastating, something I haven’t seen in all of my life. As you know, the Syrians have been suffering from war and poverty for the last 12 years. And now they are suffering after this earthquake. I have seen people in the last few days without shelter, without food, without any kind of heat. They are in this very cold weather here in the southern part of Turkey and the north part of Syria. The Syrians and the Turkish people here in these areas, they need a lot of help. They need a lot of support. And I don’t think the Turkish government can cope with this huge disaster. So, therefore, the international community needs to do more.

Just to give you example of last year of the humanitarian aid plan, the international humanitarian aid plan, less than 50% of the promises or pledges reached the Syrians. Now we don’t need 100%; we need 200%, 300%, because this is another disaster. I met people yesterday who were displaced three, four times. This is their fourth tent, fourth place, that they displaced to. They came from city to city, then northern Syria, and now they came to the south for safety and security. But now they have nothing. So, we have obligation, we have a duty to support them. The international community needs to do more. It’s not enough from the U.K. government to give only $5 million for this disaster. We are looking for more from our — from the U.K. government and all other governments, especially the United States government. We want more help. This is obligation, this is a duty, for all of us to come and help and support. As I said earlier, poverty, war zone, and now earthquake hit the Syrians, and they are in a very dire situation, very difficult situation at this cold weather.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Othman, what help, apart from, of course, you said about the U.K., whatever assistance they’ve given, which you say is inadequate — what other countries in Europe have contributed aid? And has the U.S. donated anything to assist Syrians impacted by this devastating earthquake?

OTHMAN MOQBEL: Look, until now, we haven’t seen much. And as you know, because the crossing were affected, as well, by the earthquake, so Thursday, Friday morning, some of the trucks started going inside Syria, especially from U.N. agencies. And as far as I know, these trucks related to projects previously agreed with different charities, and one of the charities is our charity, because we received some of these trucks, and that’s not related to the earthquake. After that and after the crossing was fixed, so some trucks and aid started going in. But as I said, if the U.K. only pledge five million, you can understand what about the other countries. And because of that, you can see that Turkey has big share — in figures, there was a report published by the Eye in the U.K. last year, shows that Turkey spent on the humanitarian aid around $5.5 billion, and this is higher than any other European countries. And this is after the United States, who spent around $10 billion for humanitarian aid. Our friends, the Europeans and the European governments, they need to do more in order to support the Syrians. The Syrians have been suffering from all kind of disasters in the last 12 years, and we can say enough is enough. This is obligation, and we have to do our best to support them and find solution for this disaster, long-term solution.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Othman, can you explain — you write about this in the piece — what are some of the constraints to getting aid to northwest Syria, which has been so severely impacted? And what are the governments or institutions that are making aid delivery more difficult?

OTHMAN MOQBEL: Number one, as you know, the crossing, because, as you know, in January, the Security Council renewed the crossing of one or two borders to Syria. And the main one is affected heavily by the earthquake. I think the Turkish authorities managed to fix it, I think by Thursday or Friday, but this crossing is not enough. And I think the main — one of the main problems is one crossing is not enough. So, two days ago, I think the Security Council allowed another two crossings for humanitarian aid, I think, for three months, if I am not mistaken. And so, these four are really not enough. And this is one of the main problems.

The second one is, you know, the supply chain between Turkey and Syria, because the Syrians inside depend on goods to come from Turkey. And because of the earthquake and the south of Turkey was affected heavily, so was huge need here, as well in the south of Turkey. So, therefore, there was shortage, as well, of items and goods to go in. So, therefore, because we, as a charity, Action for Humanity, we have been working inside Syria for the last 12 years, so we have warehouse. We have a lot of things inside. But what we have finished in the first two, three days. After that, the prices have increased dramatically, and the suppliers cannot supply us with more goods. So this means we need more crossing now, and we need more even ways to supply the goods inside Syria.

And the third one, funding. So, whatever we have raised as a charity from the community until now is not enough. Good, thank God we have other INGOs now. We have been in discussion with them to support us, and some of them, they already promised some good money. But as I said, all of that is not enough. Governments need to come forward and put more money to support the Syrians in the north of Syria and the Turkish. Bear in mind, because this disaster now affected Turkey, as well, and the people of Turkey, 23 million of Turkish people, they are affected by this, as well. So, therefore, we need to support both sides, and we need to put more efforts inside Syria to stop the suffering of the Syrians.

AMY GOODMAN: Othman, you are CEO of Action for Humanity. Our condolences not only for the entire crisis but for the loss in your own Action for Humanity family of aid workers, which is what all of these groups are dealing with, their own health workers, not to mention doctors and nurses, hospitals collapsing. But I wanted to ask your thoughts on lifting sanctions against Syria. Jane Ferguson writes in The New Yorker the Assad regime and its ally, Russia, allegedly are preventing international aid from entering rebel-held areas, though we’ve heard some aid has gotten through. The lifting of sanctions, and how difficult is it to get aid to the rebel-held areas, and how does that compare to aid in the Syrian government areas in Syria?

OTHMAN MOQBEL: Yes, there is no doubt that the sanctions must be lifted. And we should have now — especially at this critical time, we should lift the sanctions and allow the humanitarian aid to go in. We have seen, from the first and second day, trucks going to the regime area, but we haven’t seen that at least since the fourth or fifth day. And still that is not enough for the northwest of Syria. We have to find different ways.

And I’ll tell you, for example, the U.K. government has changed the system of immigration to allow the people of Ukraine to come in, which is great, because we have to support the Ukrainians, our neighbors, our friends, and that is another disaster. But at the same time, what they have done to allow Syrians to give them more flexibility to work hard to lift the sanctions in order for the humanitarian aid to reach the Syrians? So, this is sometimes where people feel the double standard. So, we need to be — when it comes to humanitarian, it should be one standard. We deal with everyone on the same scale and the same standard.

So, therefore, they have all the Western governments, and I hope the United States can lead, as well, on this regard, to find long-term solutions for the Syrians, especially those. You know, in the north and the northwest of Syria, you have 4.8 million Syrians; 4.1 of them depend on aid, depend on charities and the humanitarian agencies to come and to provide them with water, food, shelter and medicine. This is too much. Enough is enough.

We, as a charity, have been working here for the last 12 years. Even this crisis affected us heavily, and all other humanitarian agencies who have been working here in the south of Turkey and the north of Syria. So, we lost four members of our staff and the entire their families. And we lost tens of members of families of all our staff in Turkey and Syria. We have around 500 staff inside Syria, 70 here in the south of Turkey. Every one of them has lost family member or members, colleagues and friends. And this is for the first time I see in my life that the first group of people who are affected by this crisis are the humanitarian. Therefore, the humanitarians, we need to support them. We need to help them in order to continue their work. And to be honest with you, they still — despite of all the pain, they have still going, doing the work. I have seen in my eyes their commitment and determination to continue helping others.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Othman Moqbel, we want to thank you so much for being with us, CEO of Action for Humanity, speaking to us from Gaziantep, which is also known as Antep, in southern Turkey.

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“A Human-Made Disaster”: Kurdish MP in Southern Turkey Slams Government as Death Toll Hits 42,000

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