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White Helmets Statement on the First Anniversary of the February 6 Earthquake

The Statement:

On February 6 last year, two devastating earthquakes struck northern Syria and southern Turkey. This day was more than just a devastating natural disaster, but a new page of continued suffering in the Syrian crisis. The catastrophic effects of the earthquake were not only limited to the huge loss of life and property, but also created long-term challenges for the recovery of communities in Syria. The impacts of the earthquakes were multiplied given the preexisting fragile infrastructure, coupled with a weakened international humanitarian response and a sharp decline in humanitarian funding. All of which have hindered recovery efforts, in addition to the continued military attacks on civilian areas by regime forces and Russia.

A year later, millions of people are still struggling to recover from the impacts of the earthquakes and rebuild their lives. More than 4500 people lost their lives, and 10,400 others sustained various injuries, including those still in long-term treatment and rehabilitation programs. Approximately 40,000 families were displaced as a result of the demolition of their homes, forcing these families to live in shelter centers and temporary camps, in which already 2 million displaced people reside.

Today, we remember the lives of those we lost and commemorate this harsh memory for all Syrians; a memory which left wounds in every Syrian. We remember the resilience and commitment of our communities despite all the great difficulties and challenges, and their heroic rescue efforts to save lives in the hours that followed the earthquake. This collective response reflects the depth and rootedness of the relationship between the Syria Civil Defense (White Helmets) and the local communities, and fellow Syrian civil society organizations, as well as all Syrians in Syria and the diaspora.

On this day, we express our deep appreciation for the efforts of the Syria Civil Defense volunteers and the efforts of all humanitarian workers who responded with unparalleled courage to the calls of the people under the rubble. In the critical first hours of the response, local organizations were responding alone, at a time when there was an urgent need for a rapid international response to rescue those trapped under the rubble. Despite the lack of appropriate equipment and capacity to respond to a disaster of this scale, in addition to the shrinking humanitarian funding, they were present with the communities in their darkest moments. This Syrian-led response to this horrific earthquake, was one of the most heroic humanitarian moments, and we are proud of every volunteer and Syrian who contributed to this response. We thank you on behalf of all Syrians.

From the very first moments after the earthquake, the Syrian Civil Defense teams worked within an action plan that included three phases to respond to the earthquake: The first phase was related to the emergency response and ended with the end of the search for survivors and the recovery of the bodies of the victims. The second phase included opening roads and securing the dangers of buildings and walls in homes that are about to collapse in order to preserve the lives of civilians, facilitate emergency response operations, and open the roads that had been closed by the rubble. The third phase, which is still ongoing, includes rubble removal, which is a crucial step towards reviving affected communities and restoring infrastructure for residents to begin rebuilding their lives.

Over the past year, Syrian Civil Defense launched vital recovery and rebuilding initiatives and projects in northwest Syria. Efforts were focused on restoring life and rehabilitating vital and basic facilities to mitigate the horror of the disaster. These included more than 50 infrastructure projects, to rebuild basic facilities, rehabilitate roads, water and sanitation networks, and securing places of residence.

Science shows that sudden onset disasters are on the rise and are being exacerbated by climate change. We therefore stress today the importance of conducting a more in-depth review of the response of the United Nations institutions and the international community during the first week following the earthquake, and the necessity of setting clear rules for the response of international search and rescue teams in areas governed by de facto authorities, in the event of similar natural disasters in the future. We also reaffirm our demand to depoliticize the humanitarian response, and the necessity to ensure unrestricted and unfettered cross-border access of UN aid, a lifeline for over l 4.2 million people in northwest Syria over.

The United Nations and the international community should prioritize developing alternative mechanisms to respond to sudden onset emergencies and disasters, including by strengthening local community capacities. We stress the importance of investing in local capacities for emergency response and long-term sustainable recovery to ensure that local communities are able to respond in the event this situation recurs. Finally, we stress the need for the United Nations agencies, international organization, and Syrian humanitarian organizations to adhere to the principles of accountability to affected populations, by including Syrians, especially the most vulnerable, in all decision-making processes and in a way that preserves their rights and dignity.

The road is long, and work is continuing to restore life to northwest Syria. With humanitarian needs reaching an all-time high, and the doubling of attacks and systematic bombing by regime forces, Russia and their allies on civilian areas throughout the past year, amid the absence of any solutions to end this tragedy or accountability for the crimes committed. However, hope remains alive in our hearts and the hearts of the people of Syrian to one day see an end to this war, achieve justice, and rebuild what was lost over the past thirteen years.