‘We heard screams under rubble, but it’s not possible to save everyone’, says White Helmet

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Rescuers working in rebel-held areas in Syria report helplessness in trying to rescue survivors after the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that hit the country and Turkey on Monday (6).

“You can hear people screaming under the rubble, but we don’t have enough fuel and equipment to save everyone,” he tells the Sheet, via video call, Ammar al-Salmo, coordinator of the White Helmets in Aleppo province.

The quake killed more than 24,000 people in Syria and neighboring Turkey. In addition to the difficulties imposed by the conflict in the region, rescuers have faced cold and snow to do the job. In most of Syria, post-earthquake relief has been handled by the regime of dictator Bashar al-Assad. In Turkey, which concentrates most of the deaths, the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan is leading the efforts.

The northwest region of Syria is controlled by rebel groups and jihadist organizations that are fighting in the civil war in the country, which started in 2011. The area has not received humanitarian aid from any side, according to Salmo. Only on Friday did the Syrian regime approve the arrival of aid to areas outside the dictatorship’s control, in cooperation with the UN, the Turkish Red Crescent and the international Red Cross.

“We don’t expect anything from the Syrian regime, they don’t care about the lives of Syrians. The UN didn’t give an effective response either,” he says. “The border is open, we are receiving bodies of Syrian refugees in Turkey who died in the earthquake. But we have not received any humanitarian aid so far.”

The White Helmets work to rescue victims of bombings by the Syrian regime and Russian forces, Assad’s ally in the conflict. The group, according to Salmo, has around 2,000 volunteers.

“The work we are doing now is the same: rescuing people under rubble”, says the rescuer. “Only this time the scale of the destruction is greater, so we have to prioritize some areas.”

At the time of the earthquake, Salmo was in an office of the White Helmets, in a building with reinforced structures. But four rescuers from the organization died in the tragedy, he says. “No one is completely safe. We were all affected by the earthquake.”

He still has hope of finding people affected by the earthquake alive. “We’ve already carried out rescues up to 72 hours after bombings, but after that period the chances of finding survivors decrease considerably. We’re working around the clock.”

Salmo says that, in addition to emergency aid to carry out the rescues, long-term support will be needed to rebuild the region’s infrastructure. “It’s been 12 years of suffering because of the war. The earthquake survivors are exhausted.”

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