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A view from the epicenter of Turkey’s nightmare earthquake: “It’s bleak”

Twelve days after the earthquake, aftershocks are still striking the regions affected.

One of these aid workers, Elias Abu Ata, a communications manager for the International Rescue Committee, is working on the Turkish side of the frontier, in Gazantiep, the epicenter of the Feb. 6 quake. Abu Ata spoke with Grid Friday afternoon about the nightmarish conditions, the trickle of aid finally reaching the Syrian victims, and the most critical needs for the region in the days and weeks — and perhaps months — that lie ahead.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Elias Abu Ata: The situation is only slightly improving. Yesterday, I went to one of the public parks where there were so many tents set up, people who have been displaced, people who have lost their homes, others who just left their homes because they were waiting for the government in Turkey to assess all the buildings and the structures and then get the green light for them to return. Until then, they’re just staying in these tents until they’re allowed to go back home.

I spoke to some of the people there, some of them were Syrians. First of all, it was freezing cold, snow was still there. At night, the temperatures are reaching zero and even minus-zero degrees Celsius. The people there told me that they’re in need of cash. They need something to keep warm. They said they wanted more aid to come in. It’s not enough.

If you look on the other side of the border in Syria, it’s even worse because these people were going through a crisis before that. It’s over a decade of conflict. The needs were already immense in northwest Syria. We’re talking about over 4 million people, 90 percent of them were in need of assistance already before this earthquake. And now you can imagine how the needs have escalated for these people. They’re staying in the open, in need of shelter — some are now in displacement camps, according to our staff in the field. These are now overcrowded because more people are coming to these camps to stay in.

The healthcare system was decimated in northwest Syria even before this earthquake. Right now, our staff has reported low supplies of medical aid and supplies. Some of the health facilities have been damaged, some of them have been destroyed. IRC staff in the field told us there have been shortages in blood bags, in bandages, in painkillers. And we do have a significant concern that now things will get more challenging. We’ve had a cholera outbreak back in October, and now with this current situation in the health sector, we can imagine that things will get even more difficult for them. We might see another increase in cases of cholera.

We are looking at having more shipments coming from Turkey next week. What we know is that the border crossings are open. There was a long lineup of trucks waiting to come in. So it’s flowing right now in comparison with before. We are hopeful that aid is being delivered to all those hundreds of thousands of people who are in desperate need.

It’s bleak. It’s just horrifying to hear stories of people who cannot really seek shelter anywhere, and they will need time to access a displacement camp, or any camp that is established for them to seek shelter under a tent, which is also still not the best solution, but definitely better than being out there in the open, exposed to the elements.

When the earthquake happened, it was snowing. We’ve been calling this “a crisis within a crisis.” It’s an emergency within another emergency. Things were not great even before the earthquake, and now with this happening, it just exacerbated the suffering for all these hundreds of thousands of people. We know that almost 24 million people were impacted by this earthquake, in Turkey and in Syria.

We do believe that the international community needs to not fail the Syrian people again, at this critical time, in these critical circumstances. Now we need to make sure that efforts are being mobilized and aid, funding and access are all being prioritized.

And shelter. In northwest Syria, there’s 800,000 people living in makeshift tents and unfinished buildings. You can imagine when it’s winter, if there’s a snowstorm, people are in need of shelter. They need to stay warm, they’re in need of food. These are the stories we’re hearing on the ground, “We do need winter assistance; we need water. We don’t have enough money to survive or to get by on a monthly basis.”

And again, this is where our cash assistance programming is crucial. Because you’re able to provide people with an amount of cash they can spend to provide their basic items from hygiene items to food items.

Nobody was prepared for this. It was quite devastating. Everyone was impacted — NGOs, aid agencies, U.N. agencies, everyone in this area was impacted and exposed to this trauma. And for them to not process these mental and psychological fears that they’ve witnessed, and to be responding to other people who were impacted, you can imagine how difficult it is. This is also worth mentioning — that this catastrophe has had an impact both mentally and physically on people. Responding to them, to ensure that physical aid and mental aid is being provided, is quite important at this moment.

Allow me to quote a description that has been common: “It just felt like doomsday.” It was 90 seconds of just trauma. You don’t know what to do. You don’t know where to go. You’re in your sleepwear, you’re out there in the street under the snow. You don’t know if some of your loved ones have made it. You’re searching for them. It was just a state of chaos for everyone.

You can see how really everyone still hasn’t processed this and it’s still impacting their daily life. It is a trauma and it requires a lot of support and intervention as we speak.

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