Time is running out — those saving lives in earthquake-hit Turkey and Syria desperately need us

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By Gabriella Waaijman, Global Humanitarian Director, Save the Children
Rescue workers pull out Naime Sakar from a collapsed building in Adiyaman, southern Turkey, 13 February 2023
Rescue workers pull out Naime Sakar from a collapsed building in Adiyaman, southern Turkey, 13 February 2023   -  Copyright  AP Photo/Euronews
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

Time is running out.

It’s now been a week since two massive earthquakes over 7.6 in magnitude hit southern Turkey and north-western Syria.

The death toll — now at more than 35,000 — is continuing to climb, and international aid is only just starting to trickle into the areas that need it most. 

The people of Syria have experienced it all. They’ve been bombed. They’ve been forcibly displaced. They’ve borne the brunt of a conflict that has destroyed countless lives and livelihoods. And now this.

On Friday, one of Save the Children’s partners in Syria told my colleague: “In 2013, a bomb fell into my house. My father died and was buried under the rubble…but this earthquake was even scarier."

"I can’t describe how long it lasted because of the pain, fear, anger that I felt. I saw my entire life flash in front of me and I was frozen with fear. I looked at my wife and children while the building was shaking, and I felt so helpless.”

This heart-wrenching testimony illustrates the horror that the people of Syria are experiencing today. This comes on top of the past 12 years that have been a nightmare from which the people of Syria have been unable to wake up.

Communities remain affected long after media headlines move on

Time and time again, it is the survivors of these horrors — many of whom are frontline aid workers themselves — who are the first to respond. 

Over the past week, we’ve all seen the images of survivors in Syria and Turkey pulling fellow neighbours out of the rubble.

Siblings protecting one another until help arrives. Local rescue workers clearing the rubble with their hands or any equipment they can find in the hope of finding life underneath. People using dilapidated pick-up trucks to move aid and essential supplies to families in need.

AP Photo/Bernat Armangue
A man stands on top of the rubble of his house destroyed during an earthquake in Antakya, 12 February 2023AP Photo/Bernat Armangue

So much of the work comes down to people in the communities affected by crises and local organisations that are present where global organisations are normally not. 

They are the ones who will always stay and deliver long after the media headlines move on.

We’ve already seen how the local communities have rallied together to help those in need. One man told our local partner in Idlib that his wife was willing to breastfeed any baby who lost their mother. 

Another offered to host families in his two houses that were not destroyed. Others offered tools and machinery to dig into the rubble. Some people handed out food in the streets, and there was a rush to donate when hospitals asked for blood.

Humanitarian imperative to save lives means we have to do everything it takes

These earthquakes are the biggest natural disaster to hit this region in decades, and it is turning into one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent years, creating needs on an unprecedented scale. 

Only 5% of the impacted sites and towns in opposition-controlled areas of north-western Syria are being covered by search-and-rescue operations, according to the UN, but efforts continue in all affected areas of Syria. 

Buildings that withstood incessant bombardment over the worst years of the conflict have now completely collapsed.

AP Photo/Ghaith Alsayed
Volunteers set up tents for families who lost their homes in a devastating earthquake in the town of Harem, Syria, 11 February 2023AP Photo/Ghaith Alsayed

This tells us how urgent it is to get funds and support into the hands of those able to deliver aid the quickest. 

In a race against time, the humanitarian imperative to save lives necessitates us to do everything in our power to get funds and resources to frontline, local groups and organisations who are saving lives. 

This funding needs to happen quickly, it should be as direct as possible, and it should be sustained over time so communities can eventually rebuild and recover. 

Search and rescue operations must scale up before the window of opportunity to find people alive closes. 

But a second wave of crisis, which could lead to even more death and destruction, is looming. 

There is no time to waste

This year was already on track to see the highest rates of hunger across Syria since the start of the conflict. Add to this a lack of shelter, access to clean water, and destroyed sanitation, and you have a breeding ground for waterborne diseases like cholera, which was already a serious issue in Syria last year. 

Now it is more important than ever to support those who are there to stay.

Aid efforts have already been hampered by continued aftershocks, dire weather conditions, damage to roads and airports, and the disruption of local markets. 

But we cannot allow aid efforts to be hampered by political agendas as well. The humanitarian impact of this disaster is catastrophic, and the window of opportunity to save lives is rapidly closing.

AP Photo/Francisco Seco
Dogan Keles cries over the coffin of his son Hazar Keles, 21, before they bury him at Sehir cemetery in Malatya, 12 February 2023AP Photo/Francisco Seco

Now is the time for governments to facilitate every modality possible to get aid to those who can deliver it. 

In all affected areas of Syria, crossing points must be fully opened to allow the passage of supplies and rescue equipment to those in need. Exemptions to get humanitarian funds into areas impacted by sanctions must be facilitated. 

And most importantly, the direct funding of those local organisations in Syria and Turkey that are — and have always been — leading on the frontline must be of utmost priority.

The future of an estimated 7 million children affected in Syria and Turkey hangs in the balance. It's up to us to make it right.

Gabriella Waaijman is the Global Humanitarian Director at Save the Children International. She has extensive experience working in different fields in Africa and Asia, most notably as the Norwegian Refugee Council's Regional Director for the Horn of Africa, South Sudan, Yemen and Uganda Programmes.

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