02/28/2023, 21.26
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Aleppo Marist: earthquake 'tragedy for all', Syrians 'discriminated' in aid

Nabil Antaki, a doctor in Aleppo, slams Western sanctions that have led to a different emergency response in Syria and Turkey. People "are desperate"; the displaced need of a roof. In the early stages, machinery and rescue teams that did not come could have saved lives. For Europe and the United States, this is a disgrace.

Aleppo (AsiaNews) – Nabil Antaki is a Christian doctor specialised in gastroenterology. For years, he has been directly involved in relief work for the victims of Syria’s brutal civil war. Three years ago, he turned his attention to helping people when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out; now he is grappling with the impact of the 6 February earthquake. He spoke to AsiaNews about the latter.

“After the first, devastating shock,” he said, “hundreds of thousands of people took refuge in churches, mosques, schools, and public gardens because their homes had collapsed or had been seriously damaged, or just out of fear. Today, three weeks later, most shelters have closed.”

A lay member of the order of Marist friars, he is one of the few doctors to remain in Aleppo after the start of the civil war.

At present, “The people of Aleppo are desperate,” he said. “In the last 12 years they have experienced non-stop tragedies, one after the other: the war, the economic crisis, COVID-19, a cholera epidemic, and now the earthquake.”

In the first two weeks, it was a rush to find food, blankets, mattresses amid “absolute emergency.” Now, “the primary work is fixing damaged buildings, rebuilding those razed to the ground; and, above all, guaranteeing a roof to the thousands of families who lost their homes.”

This is a huge task, given that in Turkey alone the earthquake caused US$ 34 billion in damages, this according to the World Bank.

Meanwhile, the combined death toll for the two countries has reached 51,000. in Syria though, estimating the real toll of the quake is difficult because the country is controlled by different groups.

Reconstruction depends on what will happen wilt international sanctions against Syria.

"Even before the earthquake, poverty and economic crisis were the consequence of sanctions, which blocked investment,” Dr Antaki explained.

“The UN estimates that about 82 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line. At present, we don't have digging machinery or rescue teams equipped to search under the rubble and many died because we could not look for them, and help."

Altogether, in addition to the damages caused by the quake and by the war, sanctions against the Syrian regime will weigh heavily in the future.

Necessities like bread, gas, fuel, electricity are in short supply; motorists, for example, can have 25 litres of petrol every 20 days, electricity is available for two hours a day.

"People are desperate, so much so that today we often hear that 'we lived better during the worst years of the war, under bombs and sniper fire,’ and 'we regret not having emigrated' in the two-year period, 2015-2016, when it was easier to leave.”

Today hope is also in short supply. “There is no light at the end of the tunnel and the only consolation comes from the huge generosity and solidarity of Syrians in the diaspora, whose help and support is unique.”

Christian NGOs are among the groups bringing help and support, providing housing, shelter in churches, food, clothing, electricity, starting with the Blue Marists of Aleppo who "took care of hundreds of Christian and Muslim families" in the first phase of the emergency.

"Now we are renting apartments for those who cannot return to their homes,” Dr Antaki noted. “Neither in the past nor in the present is there any confessional discrimination in providing aid;  everyone is going through this tragedy, like the previous ones, in a spirit of total solidarity.”

For the doctor, whether in government-controlled Aleppo, or in Idlib, the only province still held by rebel and jihadi groups, or among Syrian refugees in Turkey (at least 1.7 million in the 11 provinces most affected by the earthquake), the “tragedy is the same for everyone.”.

What makes the difference are "the hundreds of planes that arrived in Turkey with aid, while none were sent to Syria for political reasons in the first hours after the quake. This is a source of shame for Europe and the United States. The response to people's suffering should have been separated from political and military issues.”

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