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Northern Syria is desperate for aid after the earthquake

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to begin tonight's program in Syria, where survivors are desperate for help after the earthquake that killed thousands of their loved ones and left even more without homes and in the cold. The death toll is actually higher in Turkey. Altogether, more than 28,000 have died in the two countries. But while aid is flowing into Turkey, in Syria, it's another story. There's a civil war there, and the government still opposes aid going directly to large areas controlled by rebels. NPR's Ruth Sherlock got rare permission from Turkey to cross the border into rebel-held northern Syria and has this report.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Driving through the border now. No checks at all - just straight through this border that is usually completely impenetrable for journalists now. This part of Syria is so stunningly beautiful - as these lush green fields and olive groves and all of this beautiful scenery there is interspersed with refugee camps and half-destroyed buildings, a consequence of more than a decade of civil war here. As well as people who are living in tents because they fled the war, we're starting to see families who have fled from the earthquake zone. We just passed dozens of mostly women and children on the side of the road, in a field with just small bags of possessions. We're driving through Jinderis now. So much destruction.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Residents ask us to come and see the destruction. They take us down a street that's partially blocked by building debris.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Zakaria Tabakh speaks with the flat voice of a man who's still in shock as he tells me his father, his wife and his 2-year-old son, Abdelhadi, are dead. Through an interpreter, he talks about the final hours with his son before the earthquake hit.

ZAKARIA TABAKH: (Through interpreter) The last night I put him in my arms and slept with him. In the morning, I found him on his bed, dead.

SHERLOCK: So he put him to bed, and he put him to sleep like...

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: Yeah. He put him in his bed, and in the morning, he found him dead.

SHERLOCK: I'm so sorry.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Zakaria's wife was killed next to him from the debris that fell on their bed. Few came to support him and his only surviving child, 5-year-old Abdulwahab, when they buried their family.

TABAKH: (Through interpreter) People are so busy with their own cases. So nobody is - have the time to help the others. All of them are injured. All of them have deaths.

SHERLOCK: In Turkey, enough equipment - they don't have enough rescue workers to cope with all of the damage. But this place feels forgotten, though we haven't seen any rescue workers. It's just a lot of very lost-looking people sitting on piles of rubble and personal possessions.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: (Speaking Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Mahmoud Hafar (ph), the mayor of Jinderis, tells us he has 3,900 families without any shelter in the freezing weather.

MAHMOUD HAFAR: (Through interpreter) If you come in the evening, you will see people are gathering in the streets and making fires in the streets. Five days from the catastrophe, there is no tents, no helps, no aids.

SHERLOCK: The Syrian regime considers bringing aid across the border from Turkey to these rebel-held areas a violation of its sovereignty. The United Nations is able to send aid through one border crossing from Turkey, but even that comes up for a regular vote at the U.N. Security Council. After the earthquake, the roads to this one sanctioned border crossing were damaged. And so even though there were other routes from Turkey into Syria, where aid could have come, none did.

MOHAMMED JUMA: (Speaking Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: (Speaking Arabic).

JUMA: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Mohammed Juma can't bear to leave the destroyed home where his wife and only two children, a toddler and a baby, were killed. Children's toys poke out from the debris.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: He is sleeping about the ruins of his home.

SHERLOCK: Now you're sleeping on the ruins.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: Now he is sleeping on the ruins.

SHERLOCK: He explains how during the earthquake, they became trapped in the rubble. He and other neighbors tried to free them. Juma believes if they'd had the right machinery, his family might still be alive.

JUMA: If there was salvation teams, they would be safe and alive.

SHERLOCK: Other residents start to tell us their own stories of loved ones they've lost and rescues they'd attempted. But our escorts say we have to move on to the next destroyed place.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: Yeah. He say that they got one of the children - one...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: So much. I'm so sorry. We have to go.

Here, there are some excavators, and they're working through the most massive pile of rubble. People are standing on top of the debris, watching. At the next site in Jinderis, excavators are digging for a 13-year-old boy. We meet a rescuer from the Syrian civil defense, Hassan Mohammed.

HASSSAN MOHAMMED: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: He says they needed specialized equipment to find and save people.

MOHAMMED: (Through interpreter) We heard the children screaming under the rubble, but we couldn't help them. When we reached them, they were dead.

SHERLOCK: He says if the United Nations had sent this help across the border from Turkey, hundreds of lives could have been saved. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Jinderis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock
Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.