Emergnecy within emergency

Al-Ahram Weekly Editorial
Tuesday 7 Feb 2023

The deadliest earthquake this century, which hit Turkey and Syria on Monday, had already claimed more than 5000 lives by the time Al-Ahram Weekly went to print. The figures are expected to continue rising, with every minute passing, meaning less hope of survivors among the thousands buried under the rubble.


The amount of damage is massive, with hundreds of buildings toppled in seconds, including hospitals, mosques and schools, leaving millions stranded in freezing weather in the streets, parks,or any open space away from the structures they fear might fall on their heads again in ongoing aftershocks, adding to the deaths and tens of thousands of injuries. Rescue teams have hunted for survivors in freezing temperatures, struggling to save lives and provide medical aid.

No words can make up for the sudden human loss that the peopleof Turkey and Syria are enduring following one of the strongest recorded earthquakes in recent years. Offers of international assistance have been massive, including from Egypt that has special historic ties with the peoples of both countries.

Only a few hours after first reports came in on the wide scope of the disaster, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi offered his sincere condolences to the peoples and governments of Turkey and Syria. He ordered urgent humanitarian assistance, as well as rescue and medical teams to be dispatched immediately to the two countries among those of many other Arab, Muslim and world countries. Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri also spoke on the phone with his Turkish and Syrian counterparts, confirming Egypt’s readiness to offer support.

The shock of the death of thousands of people while asleep in their homes, entire families vanishing and massive damages in property is a time for world leaders and governments set aside their political differences and unite in expressing solidarity. Facing such a heavy death toll reminds us of our shared human destiny, and how helpless we all are in the face of natural disasters.

Reports coming out of both countries confirm that the amount of support needed is huge, and in many areas, starting with search and rescue teams, medical teams and supplies, tents and mobile housing units, food, and heavy winter clothes that are very much in need in the freezing temperatures that have been hindering rescue efforts.

While the death toll, injuries and damages in Turkey are clearly higher than those in Syria, with over 13 million people affected by the quake, there is a clear recognition among world countries and international humanitarian aid organisations that the situation in the northwest Syria is much worse in many aspects.

After suffering scores of earthquakes over the past century, Turkey has clearly developed the expertise and capabilities to deal with such massive disaster situations. More importantly, the Turkish state remains intact, with a strong central government capable of coordinating rescue operations and providing much needed assistance to victims.

All this is lacking in Syria which has been torn by Civil War for 12 years, with the northwestern parts of the countryhit by the earthquakefalling outside government control. Over four million people live in those regions, mostly displaced in the infighting between Syrian government forces and a variety of opposition groups. Those millions were already living in precarious conditions in tents in refugee camps lacking many basic needs, including heat, food and medical care.

Only a few days before the earthquake hit Turkey and Syria, the UN and other humanitarian groups providing assistance to refugees in northwestern Syria had appealed for more urgent aid to help the refugees cope with the harsh winter conditions and snow. The recent sharp increase in oil prices made it nearly impossible to provide sources of heating for them, and they ended up cutting trees to provide some warmth in their poor tents.   

A top UN humanitarian official in Syria said fuel shortages and the harsh weather were creating obstacles to its response. “The infrastructure is damaged, the roads that we used to use for humanitarian work are damaged. We have to be creative with how to get to the people... but we are working hard.” 

Across northwestern Syria, apartment blocks, shops, even entire neighbourhoods were wiped out in seconds by the powerful earthquake. The economic collapse the war brought on had made it impossible for many of them to have a decent meal. This winter’s fuel crisis had them shivering in their beds, without heat. Syria’s wrecked infrastructure had caused thousands to fall sick with cholera in recent months; the ruin of its hospitals meant many could receive no health care.

Mark Kaye, spokesman for the International Rescue Committee, echoed many United Nations and aid groups’ pleas for more aid to be sent to Syria in the earthquake’s aftermath. “Anywhere else in the world, this would be an emergency,” he said. “What we have in Syria is an emergency within an emergency.” 

* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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