Ahead of a briefing to journalists in New York on Wednesday, Laila Baker, UNFPA Regional Director for Arab States, spoke to UN News from Aleppo, where women are clamouring for peace amid the rubble of the disaster and the ravages of war.
“Without fault, in every group of women, individual or collective, their message was the same: We’ve had enough. We are exhausted, and we want reconciliation. We want peace. And we hope that during this very dark moment, that it’ll be a moment where everyone’s hearts and minds are open to the possibilities of peace,” she said.
Immense humanitarian needs
The death toll from the double earthquakes that struck Syria and neighbouring Türkiye continues to rise and has surpassed 41,000, according to media reports.
Close to nine million people in Syria alone have been impacted, UN humanitarian affairs office, OCHA, reported, and damage is worse in the northwest – the last opposition stronghold – where needs were already at a record high in nearly 12 years of conflict.
More than 4,700 buildings have been destroyed, entire streets have been demolished, and 4.2 million people in Aleppo, and another three million in Idlib, have been affected.
UNFPA is the UN’s reproductive and sexual health agency and Ms. Baker has been visiting its clinics in the city, as well as makeshift shelters, and talking to partners and emergency response personnel.
While the level and scale of the devastation is impossible to comprehend, the damage goes much deeper.
Collapsed buildings, dashed hopes
“It’s not just the physical destruction that is compounded by over a decade of conflict and war,” she said.
“It’s the cumulative exhaustion of a people who have been fighting for their vital existence and now feel that the very moment that they’re starting to return to some normalcy and see hope and light at the end of the tunnel, the natural disaster, this massive earthquake, has literally crumbled their hopes the way that the buildings have crumbled during the earthquake itself.”
Women and girls comprise the majority of people now in shelters in north and northwest Syria, or who have been displaced.
Prior to the earthquake, UNFPA and partners were running several initiatives to provide safe birth delivery and maternal health services, as well as protection from gender-based violence.
Dignity amid destruction
“Those have had to scale up massively,” said Ms. Baker, adding that services have also been integrated and expanded to makeshift shelters, mosques, schools and even parks, where conditions are less than ideal.
“I say ‘shelter’, but I use the term loosely. None of these makeshift shelters are equipped for human residents. They lack water. They lack good sanitation, electricity, heating. It was cold, it was dark in some places, but we are trying with our partners on the ground to provide vital services.”
UNFPA has distributed “dignity kits” to nearly 40,000 women and families in Aleppo alone, providing them with basic hygiene products and other personal care items that help instill a sense of normalcy.
The agency is also working with partners to supply medical equipment to the two hospitals there that are still functioning.
‘Peace for health’
The ongoing war has left the Syrian healthcare system in tatters. Just half of all health facilities were operational prior to the earthquake, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Senior WHO officials were in the country this past weekend, including agency chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and Dr. Michael Ryan, Executive Director of its Health Emergencies Programme.
“I saw the destruction of entire communities, the unspeakable suffering and the determination of survivors and responders,” said Tedros, speaking on Wednesday during his regular media briefing from Geneva.
WHO is providing care to survivors, from psycho-social needs to medicines, he said, though noting that “the task of saving lives is only just beginning.”
“We need peace for health,” Dr. Ryan added. “From a humanitarian perspective, the scale-up is moving forward. However, our support will depend on the conditions” on the ground.
Massive response operation
The support provided by WHO and UNFPA is part of the wider relief and rescue efforts mounted by the international community in the face of the colossal catastrophe in Syria and Turkiye.
For example, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) helped provide micronutrient supplements for 113,000 under-fives and 1,000 pregnant and lactating women for three months, the UN reported on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the World Food Programme (WFP) has been distributing ready-to-eat meals and other food items to displaced families.
“We are working hand-in-hand with the rest of the United Nations team here on the ground to ensure better coordination amongst ourselves so that the most needy get the quickest service,” said Ms. Baker.
“It is a massive operation and beyond compare and nothing that one single agency, or one single country, can possibly cope with.”
A step towards reconciliation?
This week, humanitarians welcomed the Syrian Government’s decision to open two additional crossings on the border with Türkiye so that aid can be delivered into the northwest.
The earthquake struck on 6 February and convoys initially were entering via Baba Al-Hawa, the only remaining border crossing authorized under a UN Security Council resolution adopted nine years ago.
As of Wednesday, 117 trucks have now passed through the crossing and another, Bab al-Salam, with 30 making the journey that day alone.
The move by Syria will have “a very positive impact” on aid operations, said Ms. Baker, who thanked nations that have temporarily lifted sanctions against Damascus as well as the Turkish Government for its collaboration.
“I think that this is a very key note about how reconciliation can begin. Finally, we have a point where everyone converges on the need to help those who need our help. And it is unbiased, it is blind to anything except for the humanitarian assistance,” she said.
Duty to personnel
UNFPA plans to deliver more dignity kits and hospital equipment to the region and will strengthen personnel and coordination on the ground, “because there’s a sense of duty of care to our providers as well.”
Even though agency staff also have been traumatized by the earthquake, they continue to work tirelessly each day, she reported. Some have even been sleeping in their cars, moving from one location to the next once they have finished their tasks.
Urgent response continues
The UN this week launched a nearly $400 million appeal for Syria, and a similar appeal for Türkiye is being finalized.
Efforts are being rapidly scaled up and more assessments are being planned in Syria to identify priority needs in different areas, said UN Spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric, speaking in New York on Wednesday.
He added that the UN and humanitarian partners in the Inter-Agency Standing Committee have declared a systemwide scale-up for six months.
“This helps to ensure that we are collectively and operationally deploying all possible means and resources to urgently respond in the earthquake-impacted areas,” said Mr. Dujarric.