The dark side of a tragedy

Publish date 09-09-2023

by Claudio Monge

Four months after the devastating earthquake of February 6, which caused widespread destruction in a vast area of southern Turkey and north-western Syria, we return to this tragedy which has long fallen off the radar of mainstream media coverage.
In Syria, the hardest hit region was the enclave controlled by the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad, including Idlib and parts of Aleppo province where, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), at least 4,191 people.
Evidently, these figures are largely downwards. Authoritative sources, verified by the United Nations, speak of at least 6,000 people dead in the country, while the International Medical Corps, already in April, raised the toll to 7,259 confirmed victims, a figure decidedly lower than the massacre on Turkish soil but still significant. After more than a decade of war, the region controlled by the opposition was already, well before the earthquake, in a state of humanitarian crisis, with a population of 4.6 million inhabitants, which had swelled due to the internal displacement of the conflict and with aid deliveries to the enclave long limited to a single border crossing from Turkey.

Returning to the earthquake at the beginning of February, it was clear from the beginning that the Syrian government hindered relief efforts in the north-west of the country by not requesting the dispatch of international emergency response teams to those areas controlled by the opposition, effectively using the tragedy as a further "weapon of war". An investigation conducted by Syrian Investigative Reporting for Accountability Journalism (SIRAJ) also raised allegations of negligence against UN officials who allegedly did not make use of protocols and principles that allowed them to send relief teams for humanitarian reasons even without the government consent. In fact, the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) guidelines on responding to "complex emergencies" (such as those in countries in a state of civil war), clearly state that, despite the duty to fully respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of States, an exception must be made in circumstances where "the legitimacy and territory of the State are the subject of disputes, often violent".

The Government of Salvation, the civil administration of Idlib, supported by the dominant militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and the Syrian provisional government of Azaz, supported by Turkey, have reportedly requested international assistance from the beginning and, officials When asked about the silence, the UN admitted that the aid had not arrived in time due to bureaucratic problems! It can be safely said that this delay in intervention had tragic consequences for several hundred people who were heard screaming from under the rubble for several days, without anyone being able to intervene.
The search and rescue action after the earthquake was largely entrusted to the volunteers of the Syrian Civil Defense, the so-called White Helmets, who for years operated as a de facto emergency service in the areas controlled by the opposition and tormented by attacks planes and bombings. Volunteers in many cases equipped exclusively with their desperate goodwill, busy digging with their bare hands for hours, with moments of pause only to bury their loved ones, who were also victims of the tragedy. Of course, despite the fact that the UN response in southern Turkey, where the International Search And Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG) deployed 221 search and rescue teams from 82 countries, in support of the agency's rescue efforts for Disasters (AFAD), was much more consistent, to this day there are complaints of unfinished work (also in terms of recovery of bodies) and in several cases largely insufficient, in the total lack of a definitive certification of the number of victims.

Claudio Monge
NP June / July 2023

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