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Syrian Doctor Warns War-Torn NW Syria Faces Humanitarian Catastrophe as Earthquakes Kill 19,000+

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The death toll in Turkey and Syria has passed 19,300 and continues to rise following Monday’s devastating earthquakes. Many survivors are without shelter, heat, food, water or medical care, and the first United Nations aid only reached northwest Syria three days after the quakes. Rescue efforts in Syria have been further complicated by damage and displacement from 12 years of war and harsh sanctions. Prior to the earthquake, the U.N. estimated over 14 million people inside Syria needed humanitarian assistance and that more than 12 million struggled to find enough food, including half a million Syrian children who are chronically malnourished. Syrian doctor Houssam al-Nahhas says humanitarian workers and healthcare providers working in the region urgently need support from the rest of the world. “Hundreds, if not thousands, of people are still under rubble,” says al-Nahhas. He is Middle East and North Africa researcher at Physicians for Human Rights and a former emergency trauma physician in Aleppo.

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StoryFeb 16, 2023Syria Faces “Nightmare Situation” as Aid Stalls Amid Sanctions and Earthquake Death Toll Keeps Rising
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The death toll in Turkey and Syria has topped 17,000. It continues to dramatically rise, following Monday’s devastating twin earthquakes. Many survivors are facing unfathomable conditions, without shelter, heat, food, water or medical care. The first U.N. aid convoy has finally arrived in northwest Syria, three days after the quakes. Rescue efforts in Syria have been complicated by damage and displacement from 12 years of war and harsh sanctions. In Turkey’s border province of Hatay, devastated residents say help took too long to arrive, as they take stock of the disaster.

HALIL GENCOGLU: [translated] We went to the city center. The situation is worse than here. It is worse. It is almost like a ghost city. We went back at least 50 years in time. Our lives are ruined. Our children are devastated. Our lives are lost. We lost our children, our parents. At least two to three people died from each home.

AMY GOODMAN: In Syria, displaced survivors around Aleppo say they face freezing conditions amid shortages of heating oil. Many are too scared to remain indoors for fear of more tremors.

KINDA KORDI: [translated] To be honest, this is harder than war. At war, a strike, and it passes. Here, we don’t know when it ends. We are terrified, but it’s all in God’s hands.

AMY GOODMAN: The humanitarian crisis facing Syria after over 12 years of war is staggering. Prior to the earthquake, the U.N. estimated over 14 million people inside Syria needed humanitarian assistance and that more than 12 million struggled to find enough food to eat. The U.N. says half a million Syrian children are chronically malnourished. The humanitarian group Physicians for Human Rights has documented over 600 attacks on health facilities. Nine hundred forty-two medical professionals in Syria have also been killed since the war began. Earlier this week, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent called on the European Union to lift its sanctions to facilitate humanitarian aid reaching those who need it in government-controlled areas. U.N. special envoy Geir Pedersen spoke earlier today in Geneva.

GEIR PEDERSEN: We need aid, life-saving aid. It’s desperately needed by civilians, wherever they are, irrespective of borders and boundaries. We need it urgently, through the fastest, most direct and most effective routes. They need more of absolutely everything. … Emergency response must not be politicized. We must instead focus on what is needed urgently to help men, women and children, those who we can still save, those whose lives are devastated by one of the most catastrophic earthquakes the region has seen about in a century. After 12 years of war and displacements, to be visited by such a tragedy in the middle of winter is indeed enough.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by Dr. Houssam al-Nahhas. He is a Syrian doctor and Middle East and North Africa researcher at Physicians for Human Rights, former emergency trauma physician in war-torn Aleppo, Syria. He’s joining us from Baltimore, Maryland, where he received his master’s in public health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

We want to talk both personally and what’s happening on the grand scale, Dr. al-Nahhas. And thank you so much for being with us. Your family lives in Turkey. The horror of these numbers, that are increasing, of course, by the hour, and we don’t know really how many people have died. This is an area of many undocumented refugees, both Syria and Turkey, hundreds of thousands of them. Can you tell us the scope of the tragedy as you understand it right now?

DR. HOUSSAM AL-NAHHAS: Thank you very much, Amy. And good morning.

Well, let me start by saying I’m lucky that I’m not bearing the pain of losing a sibling or a parent to this earthquake, but, of course, it’s painful to see the loss of my friends, my relatives and all the people of Turkey and Syria to this earthquake. Actually, as you said, the toll of death is still unclear. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people are still under rubbles, struggling for their lives. And with each moment pass, their chance of surviving decrease. The situation in Syria is even worse, with lack of response, lack of resources. The country has a — as you mentioned, went through 12 years of war, and now this crisis is compounded with a one-in-a-century natural disaster like this earthquake.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Dr. al-Nahhas, can you speak about what you understand the constraints are to getting humanitarian aid to areas not held by the government?

DR. HOUSSAM AL-NAHHAS: So, when we talk about areas not held by the government, we are talking about northwest Syria, which rely mainly on one border crossing that has been constantly blocked, and Russia has tried constantly to block it and close it for humanitarian aid. And all U.N. aid come through this cross border, which is on Bab al-Hawa. On the other side of the cross border, on the Turkish side, lays Reyhanli and Antakya, which are two of the cities that massively were affected by the earthquake, and that’s why it’s hard to get this humanitarian aid to the region from that border crossing.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And can you say what exactly are physicians and people calling for, both in international organizations that are providing assistance — what are they saying needs to be done both to provide aid in these areas in northwest Syria, as well as in areas controlled by the regime? What needs to be done?

DR. HOUSSAM AL-NAHHAS: So, if I can start by northwest, now the search and rescue operations are still ongoing. People are still getting out from under the rubbles of their homes. And there is no heavy equipment to help lift these rubbles. So, prioritizing supporting the search and rescue efforts is one of the main calls now.

Also, when we talk about northwest Syria, we are talking about a collapsing health system with lack of resources, lack of human resources, lack of medications, that has been already an issue in the region even before the earthquake. Now we are talking about millions who lost their homes, lost their shelters, and now are looking for health services. Hospitals, from people I talked to and colleagues who are working inside Syria, are overwhelmed with victims to this earthquake, in addition to people who are still seeking services for their chronic illnesses, women who are seeking services to deliver their babies and seeking services to follow up on their pregnancy. It’s just a lot of work on healthcare providers, with very limited resources. As you mentioned earlier, this first convoy from the U.N. just arrived three days after, which means that the whole region was trying to work and operate on the stock that is there in the country.

AMY GOODMAN: In Aleppo, Syrian survivors of the earthquake were seen helping rescue workers clear the ruins of destroyed and damaged buildings, trying to break through cement to rescue other people.

SURVIVOR 1: [translated] We haven’t slept all night. We are really scared.

SURVIVOR 2: [translated] We are in the street. We do not have a place to go. There is either the mosque or the street.

REPORTER: [translated] Don’t you want to go home?

SURVIVOR 2: [translated] We’re scared for the children. When we went back home, a new earthquake took place, so we went back to the street. … We remember the days of the war, but this is God’s will.

AMY GOODMAN: Of course, it looks like the numbers are just going to dramatically escalate. About, what, 80 years ago, the earthquake of 1939 killed over 30,000 people. What do you think it’s most important, Dr. al-Nahhas, for people to understand right now? I mean, you were a doctor there. Now you’re a doctor here in the United States.

DR. HOUSSAM AL-NAHHAS: I can say, throughout my work inside Syria between 2011, 2014, as a war doctor, as an emergency physician in Aleppo, I’ve never seen this massive casualty or mass casualty event before. And I think it’s important for everyone to know that there is a grave need to support humanitarian workers, to support healthcare providers, to help them get the — or provide the services that people are in grave need for. We are talking specifically more — more specifically about northwest Syria. We are talking about 4.6 million people living in this area. Around 3 million of them are IDPs, already have been living in tents, already have been living in slums, and now they lost all their belonging, all their livelihood means.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Dr. Houssam al-Nahhas, I want to thank you for being with us, Syrian doctor, Middle East and North Africa researcher at Physicians for Human Rights, former emergency trauma physician in war-torn Aleppo, came to Baltimore to go to school at Johns Hopkins.

This is Democracy Now! When we came back, we speak with a longtime Syrian activist. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Evan Greer’s “I Want Something,” a favorite song of independent journalist and activist Jen Angel, who we’re thinking of today and rooting for today, who’s hospitalized in California after being critically injured in a robbery in Oakland.

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