In earthquake-battered Syria, a desperate wait for help that never came

Locals walk past the rubble of houses and buildings on their street in the town of Jinderis, Syria, on Friday, after it was destroyed by a major earthquake that hit the area. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)


JINDERIS, Syria — It took four days and nights after the earthquake for the rubble here to quiet down. People say the strongest voice belongs to women. Separated from their children, or fighting to save them, they scream until their lungs stop working.

In this forgotten pocket in northwestern Syria held by the rebels, no international rescuers came to their rescue. No aid shipments brought painkillers to survivors as supplies ran out. Just six miles away, across the Turkish border, thousands of tons of aid had poured in; Remote support teams like Taiwan have responded to the Turkish government’s call for help. But Syria, divided and isolated from much of the world, has had to pick up the pieces alone, as it has repeated more than a decade of war and disorder.

In the ruined town of Jinderis, at least 850 bodies were found on Friday morning. Although hundreds of people are still missing, few believe there are still any lives that can be saved. “We need help here, we asked for help here,” the town mayor said, Mahmoud Hafar. “It never came.”

On Friday, the Bab Al-Salama border crossing into Syria was almost empty. A single ambulance with flashing lights was waiting to enter. The only Syrians who returned were those who were brought back to their families in body bags.

On a rare visit to this land of Syria controlled by armed groups in Turkey, The Washington Post found communities shocked and bewildered, and very lonely. In Jinderis, fathers stood by what was left of their homes and told of waking up to find their wives and children dead. As giant excavators scraped through rubble in search of a 13-year-old boy, one man asked reporters to help him contact the United Nations for help. “Maybe they don’t know what happened in Jinderis,” he said. “No one can see this and not come here.”

This region of Syria has endured crisis after crisis, home to millions of people who have defied war and displacement, hunger and disease. Even before the earthquake, 4.1 million people here were in need of humanitarian assistance.

Access to areas beyond government control has been weaponized throughout the conflict by President Bashar al-Assad, who has imposed restrictions on the movement of humanitarian groups. has been helped by allies such as Russia at the United Nations, and at times, by neighbors such as Turkey and Jordan, which frequently impede the flow of aid. UN officials rarely complain publicly, a move that critics say is designed to maintain access to Damascus at the expense of millions of civilians living outside of its control. Assad.

In Sawran, a small town 16 kilometers from the Turkish border, residents recall the roar of the ground shaking, so loud it sounded like the ground was growling. When buildings collapsed, people remember crying out to heaven. Thirty-six people were killed, and 20 were injured.

News soon reached the survivors of what had happened 40 miles away, in Jinderis.

“We heard that Jinderis was the worst,” said Mohammed Jassim, 21, who assisted in the rescue effort after learning that his aunt, husband and their children had been killed in their home. there. “They say there are hundreds of people under the rubble and they don’t have the equipment to help them.”

All day, he heard crying. There were scratches on his hands from scratching the ground. “Imagine you are still crying after four days,” he said, and his expression went blank. “It is not unthinkable. Everyone is dead.”

With the battle lines mostly quiet after 12 years of fierce war, northwestern Syria has become the last refuge for millions of civilians or veterans who fear for their safety. they return to government areas. Many of the original inhabitants remained, too poor to go elsewhere, even when conflict befell them.

In particular, Jinderis escaped the worst excessive fighting in a long time, until Turkish-backed armed groups drove Kurdish forces out of the area in 2018.

Zakaria Tabakh, 26, came here from Aleppo, a city so crushed by barrel bombs and Assad’s air strikes that the entire area remains in ruins. He built a new life in Jinderis, married and had two children. He put his 2-year-old son, Abdulhadi, to bed on Sunday night, lying with the child for a while before sneaking out to sleep with his wife. He only remembered fragments of what came next. She died under the blanket. Abdulhadi died where he was placed during the night. Ruins are everywhere.

Tabakh said that their funeral was attended by very few people: “Everybody was busy with their work.”

The United Nations migration agency said on Friday that it had dispatched 14 humanitarian aid trucks to rebel-held Idlib, the second such shipment since the earthquake. In Jinderis, the only visible distribution of aid came from local charities – plastic bags of food and blankets piled up on flat trucks.

The death toll in northwest Syria is more than 2,000, a far cry from the 20,000 killed in Turkey. But there are still many buildings to check, many people are still missing.

Rescuers and residents painfully realized that the only equipment available to them – mainly shovels and dilapidated excavators – sometimes hurt the people they were trying to save. “How can you use these to conduct such sophisticated operations? You can not. That’s not possible,” said a member of the White Helmets civil protection force in the area. “People died there because we didn’t have the equipment.”

The director of the White Helmets, Raed Saleh, said on Friday that international aid, when it arrives, will come too late to help search for survivors and will be directed towards the removal of destroyed buildings. .

The area’s medical facilities were suspended long before Monday’s quake. Assad’s forces and their Russian allies systematically bombed medical facilities, forcing hospitals to operate underground as doctors fled. On Monday morning, the wave of casualties pushed the remaining facilities to breaking point. In the town of Afrin, doctors estimate about 70% of the patients they see are Jinderis.

“We had to transfer many of them to amputations,” an emergency nurse, Ahmed Saqar, 53, said by phone. Without support, his team was exhausted – survivors and saviors at the same time, said a colleague.

They need rest. Everyone does.

As darkness beckons and temperatures drop to freezing, surviving residents have camped in olive groves, some of them now homeless, others fear their homes might still be. fall. When night falls, the fire they burn from the olive branches will be the only light they have left.

Salwan Georges of Jinderis, Mustafa Salim of Baghdad and Claire Parker of Washington contributed to this report.


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