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'We are forced to dig our mass graves': Syrians fending for themselves after earthquake

Al-Monitor has toured devastated towns in Syria, following the deadly earthquake that has killed over 3,000 Syrians. International humanitarian aid has yet to reach the area.
The photo was taken Feb. 9, 2023, after the earthquake in the town of Jindires in the countryside of Afrin, in the north of Aleppo, Syria. - Khaled al-Khateb

ALEPPO — Rescue efforts to pull victims from beneath the rubble in the opposition-held areas in northern Syria continue days after the devastating earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria on Monday.

Munir al-Mustafa, deputy director of the Syria Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, told Al-Monitor the death toll — now over 3,000 — is expected to rise with people trapped under the rubble.

“The figures are expected to rise due to the presence of hundreds of families who are still trapped under the rubble of the destroyed buildings and houses. The rescue and search teams have been working under very difficult conditions,” Mustafa said.

He estimated that 418 buildings were flattened, while the number of those that partially collapsed surpassed 1,300. 

With Turkey getting much of the international attention and where access to aid and chain supply is easier than war-torn Syria, Mustafa said they are still waiting for the convoys to arrive. 

“No relief or medical aid, or any other kind of assistance, entered the opposition-held areas in the north of Syria despite the urgent need for this aid. We hoped to see relief convoys consisting of digging equipment and cranes to pull the victims trapped under the rubble. We also need trained rescue teams with devices to detect the survivors. Unfortunately, there has been no humanitarian response to this catastrophe that the Syrians in the northwest have been facing by themselves,” he said.

Mazen Alloush, the media office manager of the Bab al-Hawa, the only active crossing between Syria and Turkey, told Al-Monitor that bodies of Syrians who died in Turkey were the only thing to enter the crossing.

“Only the bodies of Syrians who were killed in the earthquake in Turkey entered through Bab al-Hawa. Their number hit 430 dead.”

“No patients or injured were sent for treatment in Turkish hospitals after the earthquake. No foreign volunteers crossed Bab al-Hawa to help remove the rubble in northwestern Syria. We called on foreign press agencies to cover the situation of those affected on the ground, but the Turkish side did not grant them approval,” Alloush said.

He said Ankara is the one that decides what can enter the rebel-held area. “We are ready to coordinate with any party for the entry of assistance, but it all depends on whether the Turkish side will allow this aid to enter,” he added.

The first UN convoy entered the area on Thursday, but Alloush pointed out that it did not bring earthquake relief material. 

"It consisted of six trucks carrying hygiene kits; it is part of the routine convoys that the UN delivers, but it got delayed due to the earthquake. It is not an aid convoy specifically dedicated to those affected by the earthquake,” Alloush explained.

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Syrians digging their mass graves

Al-Monitor toured a number of cities and towns that were rocked by the earthquake. Millions of people are still shocked by the catastrophic damage it caused. While rescue operations continue to pull people out of the rubble, the burial of the victims in mass graves began in several cities and towns. As the number of dead continues to rise, inhabitants of the earthquake-stricken towns have been forced to dig mass graves on the towns’ peripheries.

Syrians in the northwest are living in fear of the collapse of additional residential buildings that were cracked during the earthquake and ongoing aftershocks. Many families have camped outside of their houses, in their cars or in tents, with each housing a large number of families. These tents were hastily set up as part of civil initiatives on the periphery of the devastated areas.

While Syrians believe that the Arab and international communities have failed to help them, people in the towns and cities that were not badly affected by the earthquake in Aleppo’s countryside and Idlib are collecting donations, including blankets, clothing, foodstuffs and cash donations, to send to the areas that have been affected. Popular initiatives, however, are not enough, because this disaster is greater than the capacities of the people who already lack the most basic necessities of life.

The town of Jindires in the Afrin countryside is almost completely destroyed, and hundreds of families are trapped under the rubble of its residential buildings. This town appears to be one of those most affected by the earthquake.

A number of the town residents told Al-Monitor that the number of buildings that were demolished in the town may exceed 220 and dozens of people are still waiting to be rescued from beneath the rubble, although several days have passed since the earthquake. Rescue operations have been delayed due to poor capabilities and the lack of heavy equipment to lift the rubble.

Al-Monitor met with several young volunteers working alongside the White Helmets In Jindires, to retrieve victims from under the rubble and help them move the bodies.

“I was forced to dig and bury a large number of victims who have been pulled from under the rubble in mass graves. There are entire families who were killed in the earthquake with not one relative left to receive their bodies and bury them,” Badr al-Din Issa, one of the volunteers, told Al-Monitor. 

Ahmad al-Dimashqi, a survivor of the earthquake in Jindires, told Al-Monitor that most most of the victims of the earthquake in the town are displaced people from Ghouta, Damascus, Aleppo and Hama.

“Entire families have died, and there is no one to bury them in a traditional manner, so the best case was to bury them in mass graves.”

Other towns, including Salqin, Harem, Azmarin, Hamziyeh, Atarib, Armanaz, Millis and others, are devastated as well. Rescue operations by the White Helmets and local residents are ongoing in these towns and villages, using light tools to save the survivors stranded under the rubble.

Majid Abdelnur, a journalist based in Aleppo’s countryside, told Al-Monitor that Russia will block any aid to the rebel-held region. Moscow, an ally of the Assad government in Damascus has exercised its veto power many times in the past to block cross-border aid to that area of Syria. 

“We are trapped in this area. [Nearly] 5 million residents are doomed by a Russian veto to the entry of food and drinks in the area here. We are living the horrors of the earthquake. Here, the wounded are treated in primitive medical posts that we call hospitals. We are not only trapped, we are prisoners. We are dying alone while the whole world is watching," Abdelnur said. 

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