Rescue groups criticise slow international response in rebel-controlled Syria

White Helmets will continue search-and rescue-operations for another eight hours as chances of finding survivors diminish

White Helmets appeal for help from north-west Syria after Turkey earthquake

Emergency personnel search for victims at the site of a collapsed building after a powerful earthquake in Diyarbakir, southeast of Turkey, 06 February 2023.  According to the US Geological Service, an earthquake with a preliminary magnitude of 7. 8 struck southern Turkey close to the Syrian border.  The earthquake caused buildings to collapse and sent shockwaves over northwest Syria, Cyprus, and Lebanon.   EPA / DENIZ TEKIN
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Follow the latest on the earthquake in Turkey and Syria

The director of the only search-and-rescue organisation operating in rebel-controlled north-west Syria on Friday criticised the international community’s slow response to send aid to the region after an earthquake killed tens of thousands in the region.

“We want to thank all the people that helped us and who came faster than the international community and the United Nations,” said Raed Saleh, director of the White Helmets Civil Defence.

The White Helmets are a volunteer search-and-rescue team in Syria’s opposition-held north-west, formed during the war in Syria, which has been going on for more than 10 years.

“Without their help, and without the donations from our fellows in Syria and our diaspora, we would not have been able to continue the search and rescue,” he said, adding that rescuers were unable to recover hundreds of bodies still under the rubble. The White Helmets have so far managed to save the lives of almost 3,000 people trapped in the ruins of destroyed homes.

Mr Saleh said the White Helmets would continue to search for life under the rubble of quake-afflicted disaster areas for another eight hours, but that “survival is very rare after the passage of 100 hours”.

More than 109 hours have passed since the 7.8-magnitude quake wreaked havoc across southern Turkey and Syria, destroying entire cities and villages.

All week, rescue workers have appealed to the international community to send aid, saying the lack of adequate equipment and the shortage of supplies is hindering their ability to mount such large-scale rescue missions effectively. In some areas, civil defence volunteers used their bare hands to dig for survivors in the rubble due to the shortage of equipment.

“My deepest apologies to the family and friends of those who we could not return to you alive,” Mr Saleh said. “We were fighting against time and our lack of effective equipment was a big reason for this deficiency.”

Why has it taken so long to get aid to north-west Syria?

TOPSHOT - A Syrian man cries as he sits on the rubble of a collapsed building in the rebel-held town of Jindayris on February 7, 2023, following a deadly quake. The Syrian Red Crescent appealed to Western countries to lift sanctions and provide aid after a powerful earthquake has killed more than 1,600 people across the war-torn country. The 7.8-magnitude quake early the previous day, which has also killed thousands in neighbouring Turkey, led to widespread destruction in both regime-controlled and rebel-held parts of Syria. (Photo by AAREF WATAD / AFP)

On Wednesday, Syrian opposition groups reached a deal with Ankara to open alternative routes into Syria’s north-west in a bid to speed urgently needed aid. Two border crossings were opened in an attempt to bypass UNSC restrictions placed on the Bab Al Hawa crossing, the only point authorised as an official aid route by the UN.

Independent volunteer teams were able to enter north-western Syria through the open crossings.

“We can’t say that any international aid teams entered,” Mr Saleh said of the north-western region. “Those who entered were a team of volunteers from Egypt and a small team from Spain without tools.”

On Thursday, a convoy of six lorries carrying UN aid passed through Bab Al Hawa, but border crossing officials told The National that the lorries did not carry earthquake-related relief supplies but the usual “routine aid … just food, sterilisers and cleaning supplies”.

On the fifth day since the humanitarian disaster, fourteen lorries carrying humanitarian aid meant for earthquake survivors crossed into northern Syria from Turkey.

“I want to thank our Syrian fellows who, instead of heating for themselves and their family in extreme winter conditions, cut themselves off from fuel so we could power our equipment,” Mr Saleh said.

Updated: February 10, 2023, 6:04 PM