Tuesday, 21 May 2024

In a Place Shattered by War and Earthquakes, People Feel Forgotten

On the spot where a three-story building completely collapsed after a devastating earthquake struck northwestern Syria in February, a small tent encampment has sprung up. Residents call it “the camp of the forgotten.”

In one of the tents — which feels like a sauna during the daytime — sleep Fatima al-Miree, 61, and her family of seven. It’s pitched outside their single-story home, which still stands next to the encampment, but with cracks running threateningly up and down the walls. She said she had lost count of how many aid groups had come, photographed the damage and left.

“We haven’t seen even five liras from them,” Ms. al-Miree said. “We don’t have the money to make the repairs ourselves. If we work, we eat. If we don’t work, we don’t eat.”

More than six months after a powerful earthquake hit northwestern Syria and southern Turkey, many of those affected in Syria feel forgotten: There have been limited repairs and almost no rebuilding. And while the death and destruction in neighboring Turkey was far greater, the recovery effort in Syria is far more complicated.

In Syria, according to the United Nations, the quake killed more than 6,000, destroyed some 10,000 buildings and left about 265,000 people homeless. And it also cut across the front lines of a 12-year war, striking areas controlled by the government and by opposition groups, some backed by neighboring Turkey.

Millions of those living in the quake zone had already fled fighting, and many were sheltering in tents or other makeshift housing, reliant on international aid, when disaster struck again.

Despite this crisis within a crisis, there are no plans for a full-scale or organized reconstruction effort.

The situation has worsened recently. Last month, a U.N. resolution to allow cross-border aid from Turkey expired, putting much of the humanitarian support for the area in limbo.

On Sunday, three U.S. Congress members, including Representative French Hill, a Republican from Arkansas, briefly visited the Syrian side of one of the border crossings. It was the first visit by American lawmakers to this part of the country in a decade and Syrians said they hoped it would draw attention to the dire humanitarian situation and the need for more U.S. action to end the conflict.

The recovery from the quake so far has been piecemeal and ad hoc — some restoration of schools, sidewalks and marketplaces and some light home repairs. For the most part, Syrians have been left to pick up the pieces alone.

From the start, global aid efforts have been hampered not just by the territorial divisions but by an array of other obstacles stemming from the war, including international sanctions on the government, questions over property rights where many owners are displaced, and a province mostly controlled by a group that the United States has designated a terrorist organization.

“The whole debate on rebuilding and reconstructing has been very political for a long time,” said Bahia Zrikem, the Syria policy manager for the Norwegian Refugee Council, which sponsors humanitarian projects. “We are trying to respond as much as possible to the reality, but we are also extremely limited,” she added.

The biggest aid donors to Syria — the United States and European countries — decline to fund reconstruction from the conflict until it has a political settlement. The reluctance has extended to earthquake damage, aid organizations say.

“Reconstruction of war is something different,” said Atef Nanoua, the executive director of Molham Team, a Syrian aid group. “We are talking about rebuilding homes affected by the earthquake.”

Instead of relying on donor states after the quake, Molham raised $13 million from individuals. It will go to building 2,000 homes.

On a recent day in Idlib Province, dozens of workers dug into the rocky ground and began pouring foundations for the first of six Molham housing projects.

One of the concerns in northwestern Syria, in towns like Jindires, is that some of the homes destroyed in the earthquake belonged to families who had fled, many of them members of Syria’s Kurdish minority. In their place came members of the dominant ethnic group, Syrian Arabs, fleeing from elsewhere in the country.

To avoid cementing that displacement and changing the demographics of the area by building on the land of those who fled, Molham and other aid groups have stayed away.

Only about 40 percent of the residents in Jindires are originally from there, according to the town council. Ms. al-Miree and her family are among them.

Bags and blocks of cement are stacked throughout their neighborhood as residents repair cracked walls and fallen roofs. Some said they had small grants from aid groups, others borrowed money and a fortunate few could afford repairs themselves.

Though Ms. al-Miree’s home is standing, her family are afraid to sleep within its cracked walls in case a fatal tremor strikes, as the earthquake did, in the middle of the night.

“This morning, my daughter began crying: ‘Mama, I can’t sleep from this heat. Just let me sleep in the house and let me die,’” Ms. al-Miree said.

But Ms. al-Miree will not let her.

There have been hundreds of aftershocks and tremors still shake the region. Even when all is still, Ms. al-Miree said, she hallucinates earthquakes, running outside in fear. She hung keys on the wall to gauge whether the ground was really trembling.

The family registered with an aid group to get a tent, but it never came. Instead, they sleep in a borrowed tent that the owners want back. She does not know where her family will sleep if they take it.

Abdulrahman al-Aas and his family arrived in Jindires in 2019 after fleeing Harasta, a former rebel stronghold near the capital, Damascus, that was retaken by the government. They moved in with an aunt who was squatting in an apartment building under construction.

When the earthquake struck, Mr. al-Aas, 27, said, he lost 36 family members in that building and others nearby, including his wife and three children. Only he and his brother survived.

“No one is left,” he said in a voice that suggested he did not want to talk about it any further.

For months, he and his brother lived in a tent with other single and widowed men in a camp for earthquake victims. Eventually, he decided he “couldn’t stay in the camp mourning,” said Mr. al-Aas, who still wears his wedding ring.

Before the quake, he had a small sandwich shop near his apartment. It was destroyed as well.

In the souk in the center of town, some aid groups have begun to rehabilitate shops. But the rents there were $200 a month, which he did not have. He returned to the spot where his apartment and shop once stood and, though the owner has not returned, began to piece together another home and business.

To open a small butcher shop, he said, he poured concrete, bought metal rebar salvaged from the rubble and paid $60 for a tarp. He and his brother are living in a tent next door, which they bought for $25.

“Right after the earthquake, people were talking about rebuilding,” Mr. al-Aas said, as he packed up kibbe — a mixture of meat, bulgur wheat and onions — for a customer. “But as time has passed, no one is saying that anymore,” he added.

“They lost hope,” said Muhammad Abdulrahman, a former neighbor standing near the counter. “So they began to repair by themselves.”

Raja Abdulrahim is a Middle East correspondent based in Jerusalem covering the Levant. More about Raja Abdulrahim

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