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Time is running out.
It has now been a week since two major earthquakes measuring over 7.6 magnitude shook southern Turkey and northwestern Syria.
The death toll – now at more than 35,000 – continues to mount, and international aid is just beginning to flow to the areas that need it most.
The people of Syria have experienced all of this. They were bombed. They were forcibly evicted. They have borne the brunt of a conflict that has destroyed countless lives and livelihoods. And now this.
On Friday, one of Save the Children’s partners in Syria said to my colleague: “In 2013, a bomb fell on my house. My father died and was buried under the rubble… but this earthquake was even scarier.”
“I can’t describe how long it took because of the pain, fear and anger I felt. I saw my whole life flash before me and was frozen with fear. I looked at my wife and kids while the building was shaking and I felt so helpless.”
This heartbreaking testimony illustrates the horror the people of Syria are experiencing today. This comes on top of the last 12 years, which have been a nightmare from which the people of Syria have not been able to wake up.
Communities remain affected long after media headlines have continued
Time and time again, it’s the survivors of these horrors—many of whom are frontline workers themselves—who react first.
Over the past week we’ve all seen the images of survivors in Syria and Turkey rescuing their neighbors from the rubble.
Siblings protecting each other until help comes. Local rescue workers are clearing the debris with their hands or whatever equipment they can find, hoping to find life underneath. People using derelict pickup trucks to transport relief supplies and essential supplies to families in need.
Much of the work comes from people in crisis-affected communities and local organizations that have a presence where global organizations are not typically present.
They are the ones who will always stay and deliver long after the media headlines have moved on.
We have already seen how local communities have come together to help those in need. A man told our local partner in Idlib that his wife is willing to breastfeed any baby lost by his mother.
Another offered to host families in his two homes, which were not destroyed. Others offered tools and machines to dig in the rubble. Some people were distributing food on the streets and there was a rush for donations as hospitals asked for blood.
The humanitarian imperative to save lives means we must do whatever it takes
These earthquakes are the largest natural disaster to hit the region in decades and are shaping up to be one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent years, creating hardship on an unprecedented scale.
Only 5% of affected towns and cities in opposition-controlled areas of northwestern Syria are covered by search and rescue operations, according to the UN, but efforts are continuing across all affected areas of Syria.
Buildings that withstood the incessant bombardment during the worst years of the conflict have now completely collapsed.
This shows us the urgency of getting funds and support into the hands of those who can provide aid most quickly.
In a race against time, the humanitarian imperative to save lives compels us to do everything in our power to bring funds and resources to the frontline, local groups and organizations that are saving lives.
This funding must be rapid, it should be as direct as possible, and it should be sustained over time so that communities can eventually be rebuilt and recovered.
Search and rescue operations must be stepped up before the window of time for finding people alive closes.
But a second wave of crises that could lead to even more death and destruction is looming.
There’s no time to lose
This year was already on track to record the highest rates of hunger in all of Syria since the conflict began. Add to this a lack of shelter, access to clean water and destroyed sanitation, and you have a breeding ground for waterborne diseases like cholera, which has been a serious problem in Syria for the past year.
Now more than ever, it’s important to support those who stay there.
Relief efforts have already been hampered by persistent aftershocks, poor weather conditions, damage to roads and airports, and disruption to local markets.
But we cannot allow aid efforts to be hampered by political agendas as well. The humanitarian impact of this disaster is catastrophic and the window of opportunity to save lives is closing fast.
Now is the time for governments to facilitate all possible modalities to get help to those who can afford it.
In all affected areas of Syria, border crossings must be fully opened to allow the passage of relief supplies and rescue equipment to those in need. Exceptions to direct humanitarian funds to areas affected by sanctions must be facilitated.
And most importantly, direct funding to the local organizations in Syria and Turkey that are – and always have been – frontline leaders must be a top priority.
The future of an estimated 7 million affected children in Syria and Turkey is at stake. It’s up to us to get it right.
Gabriella Waaijman is Global Humanitarian Director at Save the Children International. She has extensive experience in various fields in Africa and Asia, most notably as the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Regional Director for the programs in the Horn of Africa, South Sudan, Yemen and Uganda.
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