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One Year After the Earthquake: A Catastrophe Doubled

One year on from the earthquake that struck Syria on February 6, Syrians are still fighting to survive its impact amidst continued attacks.

A year has passed since the catastrophic earthquake struck northern Syria and southern Turkey at 4:17 a.m., registering a magnitude of 7.8. This initial tremor was followed by another, measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale, accompanied by numerous aftershocks. The earthquake compounded the effects of over 12 years of war and attacks by the Syrian regime and Russia. Lives were lost, and countless individuals were thrust into displacement, exacerbating the challenges of recovery and resilience-building. With infrastructure already fragile, thousands displaced, inadequate response measures, scarce recovery initiatives, ongoing military operations, dwindling healthcare resources, and the looming threat of disease outbreaks, the challenges remain immense.

However, the earthquake disaster redefined humanitarian response as a triumph of the will to live despite immense difficulties and challenges. Collective efforts revived faith in humanitarian action reflecting the depth and rootedness of the relationship between The White Helmets and the communities it serves.

Northwest Syria was deeply impacted by the earthquake and the White Helmets declared a maximum state of emergency to rescue people trapped under the rubble in 182 locations within 60 communities, in which more than 580 buildings were completely demolished and more than 1,578 buildings were partially damaged. 

White Helmets volunteers managed to rescue 2,950 people from under the rubble and recovered 2,172 bodies of victims of the earthquake. More than 3,000 White Helmets participated in these operations, including 2,500 volunteers, female 300 volunteers and 200 administrative staff, with full mobilization of all availble heavy machinery and the necessary equipment, in addition to renting a number of heavy machineries from local markets.

The First 72 Hours Fighting the Impact of the Disaster

Despite the highest toll of casualties and extensive damage in northwestern Syria within the Syrian geographic landscape, there was no direct international or UN intervention to assist the devastated region within the most critical period after the disaster struck. White Helmets volunteers and residents in northwestern Syria confronted the aftermath of the earthquake, effectively responding to and saving lives. Despite the ongoing escalation of humanitarian needs in northwestern Syria, humanitarian aid ceased entering through the Bab al-Hawa crossing on July 10th after the expiration of the UN mandate. This allowed Russia to wield humanitarian aid as a political tool, manipulating the international community through the Security Council, despite legal provisions permitting aid passage without the need for a Council resolution. Instead of expanding and streamlining aid entry to address the escalating needs of the population, the Syrian regime took control of the aid file across the borders, the remaining lifeline for Syrians after enduring 12 years of war, destruction, and tragedy    

White Helmets Response in the Aftermath of the Earthquake

As the dust settled after the earthquake, it became clear that the disaster was beyond the scale of any singular nation or organization to handle. Despite the challenges, The White Helmets completed the first phase of earthquake response, which included search, rescue, and recovery. This second phase involved opening roads spanning 800 km across 335 residential clusters and 119 camps. Additionally, it included removing roofs and walls prone to collapse to safeguard civilian lives and facilitate emergency response operations, covering an area exceeding 30,000 cubic meters within 125 residential clusters. This aimed to protect civilians from risks arising from the collapse of roofs and walls in damaged buildings, public facilities, and schools.

Our teams also played a crucial role in establishing temporary shelter centers and the essential infrastructure for them. This involved furnishing and facilitating roads, lands, and camps covering an area of 887,146 square meters across 396 residential clusters and 503 camps.  

The third phase encompassed debris removal, recovery, and rehabilitation. White Helmets teams removed over 442,000 cubic meters of debris within 162 residential clusters.    

Local Communities and Partners

The active participation of civilians and residents in the affected areas has significantly enhanced The White Helmet's ability to respond effectively, particularly in light of international hesitancy and the delayed arrival of UN aid. The timely delivery of aid, crucial for the urgent rescue of those trapped under debris, faced delays. The pivotal role played by partners of The White Helmets, including donor countries, collaborating organizations, and supporting entities, cannot be overstated. Their contributions have been instrumental in alleviating the hardships faced by Syrians and enhancing response mechanisms, particularly in the advanced stages.

Women Volunteers

The earthquake once again highlighted the crucial role of women volunteers from the White Helmets in the response efforts. Women volunteers were integral at every stage of the response, starting from the very moment the earthquake struck. From search and rescue operations in the most challenging conditions to monitoring the condition of those affected by the earthquake, and providing services in Women and Family Centers, White Helmets women volunteers played a pivotal role in earthquake response and alleviating the suffering of affected Syrians.

The White Helmets' Women volunteers delivered dozens of medical services in northwestern Syria from February 6, 2023, until the end of the year. These services benefited over 127,000 civilians, including 83,000 women and 31,000 children, across 238 communities.

Earthquake Recovery Projects:

The White Helmets executed quality infrastructure projects as part of an action plan to alleviate the suffering of civilians and facilitate shelter for those affected by the earthquake. This falls within the framework of recovery operations and revitalization of affected communities, through collaboration and coordination with organizations and entities operating in northwestern Syria.

Road Rehabilitation:

  • Rehabilitation and asphalting of roads in Saramada (Saramada Al-Amoud Road and its sub-roads) with a total length of 5050 meters.
  • Rehabilitation and asphalting of roads in Afrin (Afrin-Kafr Janna Road with a length of 9500 meters and the Third Afrin Bridge Road with a length of 1650 meters), carried out by The White Helmets through the operational alliance composed of the Syrian Forum, The White Helmets, and the Syrian American Medical Society.
  • Paving the Ain al-Bayda al-Qandariyah road in Jarabulus, Aleppo Governorate with a length of 8500 meters.
  • Rehabilitation of the western entrance of Idlib City with a length of 1400 meters, including pavement, painting, landscaping of gardens, and lighting, to organize traffic, reduce traffic violations and accidents, and provide an aesthetic appearance.
  • Rehabilitation of the entrance road to Aazaz National Hospital with a length of 140 meters.
  • Rehabilitation of the Market Street in Jisr al-Shughur with a length of 235 meters. This included maintenance of rainwater drains, cleaning of rainwater drainage channels, installation of colored interlocking tiles, planting trees, and installing solar lighting poles.
  • Rehabilitation and asphalting of the road from Sarmada to Kafr Dariyan with a total length of 3310 meters, in collaboration with the Sham Humanitarian Foundation.

Supporting Community Resilience and Education

  • Launching a project to rebuild the Khalid Bin Al-Waleed School in Jindires, which accommodates 4,000 students.
  • Rehabilitation of a school in Mare’.
  • Rehabilitation of the Faculty of Education in Afrin.
  • Rehabilitation of the Faculty of Economics and Administrative Sciences in Al-Bab City
  • Rehabilitation work within the Free University of Aleppo.
  • Establishing and equipping a community empowerment center in Jisr Al-Shughour.
  • Rehabilitation of 44 White Helmets centers.
  • Rehabilitation of places of worship, construction of Al-Maland Mosque.

Water and Sanitation

  • Rehabilitation of a drinking water network of about 50 km and sewage networks of more than 80 km in Kafr Karmin - Kamouna in the western countryside of Aleppo, which meets the needs of about 7,000 shelters for earthquake victims built on an area of 200,000 square meters.
  • Rehabilitation of 2,100-meter sewage networks in the Hawar al-Nahr community.
  • Rehabilitation of 3,050-meter sewage networks in Babaka community.
  • Rehabilitation of sewage networks with a length of 1,650 meters in the community of Bardaqli.
  • Rehabilitation of sewage networks with a length of 500 meters in the community of Binnish.

Projects in the Planning Stage

  • SAMS Medical Village project, through the operational alliance with SAMS and the Syrian Forum
  • A project to build an oncology center through the operational alliance with Al-Ameen for Humanitarian Support.
  • Restoration project for schools damaged by the earthquake.
  • Restoration and rehabilitation of medical facilities damaged by the earthquake.

These projects were not solely aimed at rebuilding essential facilities or rehabilitating roads, water, and sanitation networks. They also sought to ensure stability for the residents, marking a transition from emergency response to long-term planning. While the organization had been involved in service projects in previous years to support community resilience and early recovery, the earthquake brought a distinct shift in both the scope and nature of these projects and initiatives.    

Temporary Shelter Centers

Over the 12 years preceding the earthquake, the Syrian regime and Russia pursued a policy of forced displacement, leaving around two million Syrians living in camps devoid of basic life necessities. The earthquake further exacerbated the situation, rendering an additional 40,000 families homeless. They sought refuge in hastily constructed shelters, some of which were built alongside the rubble of homes belonging to survivors and victims of the earthquake, making them, like over two million displaced individuals, vulnerable to harsh conditions.

Within a year of the earthquake, the temporary shelter centers for the earthquake-affected population experienced the challenges of both summer and winter, enduring heat and cold, floods submerging the facilities, storms ripping apart their tents, intense heat waves, and the threat of fires that claimed the lives of earthquake survivors and consumed their tents.

Our teams played a crucial role in establishing temporary shelter centers and the essential infrastructure for them. This included furnishing and facilitating roads, grounds, and camps covering an area of 887,146 square meters within 396 residential clusters and 503 camps.

The earthquake survivors in these temporary shelters face challenges such as the loss of livelihood opportunities, the absence of basic living conditions, threats of disease spread, and disruptions to children's education.

Ongoing Attacks

While Syrians were attempting to recover from the impact of the devastating February earthquake, the Syrian regime, Russia and their allied militias continued to carry out attacks and claim more Syrian lives.

Our teams documented 1,322 military attacks within 189 residential clusters throughout the year 2023. The intensity of military attacks increased starting from August, with September and October witnessing the highest number of assaults. Assad's regime was responsible for over 84% of the attacks, while Russian forces were responsible for 6%. Additionally, 4% of the attacks originated from areas under the control of the Syrian regime and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in addition to several attacks of unknown sources.

The attacks targeted various civilian facilities to inflict the highest number of casualties and injuries among civilians. The majority of attacks (53%) targeted agricultural fields, followed by civilian homes (32%), then roads (5%). Schools, camps, public buildings, markets, hospitals, and mosques were also subjected to attacks.  

During their response to military attacks throughout 2023, White Helmets volunteers recovered the bodies of 173 casualties, including 24 women and 51 children. They also rescued 720 injured individuals, including 97 women and 233 children. Volunteers faced significant challenges due to difficulties in movement caused by the surveillance of targeted areas by reconnaissance aircraft. There were concerns about the possibility of renewed shelling or double-tap airstrikes.

During the military campaign in October, Syrian regime forces targeted four Syrian Civil Defense centers, attacking a center in Ariha on October 5 and two centers in Darat Izza and Idlib City, as well as the Women and Family Center in the town of Sarmin on October 8. No volunteers were injured in the attacks on the centers.  

On July 11, Syrian Regime forces targeted White Helmets rescue teams during their response to artillery shelling, resulting in the death of the team leader, Abdul Basit Abdul Khaliq, and the complete destruction of the rescue vehicle. Additionally, three volunteers were injured in attacks in October.     

Routine Humanitarian Operations

In parallel with the activities carried out by the White Helmets in response to the February 6 earthquake, volunteers continued their work within other main sectors of the organization, including emergency services, responding to various types of fires, natural disasters, war debris removal, traffic accidents, as well as awareness campaigns. After February 6, 2023, until the end of the last year, the White Helmets recorded the provision of more than 83,000 ambulance services benefiting 131,000 civilians. During the same period, over 4,350 awareness sessions were conducted, benefiting 84,000 civilians, and more than 6,200 operations related to war debris removal were carried out, resulting in the disposal of over 930 unexploded ordnances. White Helmets teams also responded to over 2,600 fires, claiming the lives of 19 civilians, including 13 children and 3 women.

Additionally, the White Helmets executed thousands of service operations aimed at enhancing local community resilience in hundreds of residential clusters, cities, towns, villages, and camps in northwest Syria. These services ranged from cleaning schools, streets, parks to public facility maintenance. Volunteers also conducted landscaping and beautification work at the entrances and exits of cities, planting and watering trees.

Developing Capacity After the Earthquake

The experience gained by The White Helmets over nearly a decade of responding to bombings and air strikes launched by the Syrian regime and Russia on Syrian cities and towns played a critical role in a more effective response during the earthquake, despite limited resources and numerous challenges. The broad geographical area requiring response and the war-induced infrastructure weaknesses complicated the task.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, the White Helmets' response took on a different form through projects, service initiatives, awareness sessions, and training auxiliary volunteer teams. The response became proactive, emphasizing the importance of coordination and collaboration with local councils and communities. Additionally, the earthquake highlighted the significance of disaster/crisis management as a valuable knowledge asset for dealing with seismic events.    

Psychological Support

In August, the White Helmets launched the psychological support project to reach a psychologically recovered society after years of war and the earthquake disaster that left an impact and trauma on communities. 

A total of 20,822 individuals, including 10,231 women and 10,528 children, benefited from individual and group sessions, covering stress management, parenting skills, early childhood development, recreational activities, and addressing gender-based violence.

Enhancing Community Participation in Disaster Response

The White Helmets launched a vital initiative to enhance community participation in disaster response by providing training courses aimed at building disaster response capabilities among residents in northwest Syria.

Community participation proved pivotal during the devastating earthquake on February 6, playing a crucial role in the swift response and overcoming numerous challenges. Developing the capacities of local residents is key to enhancing response capabilities and contributing effectively to life-saving efforts. Over 2,800 young men and women have received training in disaster management principles, evacuation procedures, firefighting, first aid, search and rescue, safety protocols, and awareness of the dangers posed by war remnants.  

Effective community participation is a critical factor in the success of communities in overcoming disasters and crises. It ensures the continuity of life by planning, managing, and implementing strategies to address the destructive effects of disasters on health, the economy, psychology, and society. The unity of the community working towards a common goal is essential for containing, overcoming, and surviving crises while surpassing their destructive material and moral impacts.    

Enduring the Impact of the Earthquake

The earthquake intensified the humanitarian crisis in NW Syria. Lasting only seconds, the seismic event left indelible marks that will persist for years. Still, reconstruction will not be possible as long as the Syrian regime and Russia continue to attack the region.  

Despite being a year fraught with challenges and difficulties, the year has not extinguished the spirit for life, the hope for justice, and the yearning for the return of Syrians to their homes, fostering reconstruction amid the aftermath of both the earthquake and war.