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People have been left to fend for themselves after an earthquake struck war-torn northwest Syria

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After more than a decade of bombing, dwindling international support, and a stifling economic crisis, opposition-held northwest Syria was already barely hanging on when disaster struck.

Instead of bombs from the sky, early in the morning of February 6, the earth shook from below – multi-storey buildings fell on the heads of residents.

The earthquake left more than 35,000 people dead in Turkey, where international help could easily flow. But the complex politics of humanitarian aid in opposition-held northwest Syria has left many war-weary citizens there to fend for themselves.

Waleed Ibrahim lost more than twenty of his family members – including his brother, his cousin and all their children. He was unable to extract their bodies from the rubble until two days after the earthquake.

“We would remove one rock after another and find nothing under it. People were screaming under the concrete, ‘Get us out! ‘” Get us out! “But we came out empty-handed,” he said.

“Your hands alone are not enough.”

Parts of the neighboring provinces of Idlib and Aleppo that were held by Turkish-backed opposition suffered the bulk of the earthquake’s casualties in Syria: more than 4,000 out of a total Syrian death toll of more than 5,800, according to the United Nations and government authorities.

Four Syrian towns straddling the border with Turkey were among the most affected: Salqin, Hareem, Jandris, and Atarib.

On an organized press tour Tuesday, Reuters saw about 20 men and boys trying to save what they could from destroyed homes in the Harem neighborhood and its environs, without protective clothing or uniforms.

Some only wore work gloves covered in the gray and white dust of smashed bricks. Even their eyelashes, lips, and beards were covered in the chalky substance.

A man prays among the rubble while a lone excavator removes the rubble. Children chased each other around piles of rubble and twisted rebar.

‘The hardest week’

The front lines have been relatively quiet over a decade in the conflict – which erupted in 2011 with protests against President Bashar al-Assad that ended with the country splitting into rival cantons.

Raed Saleh, commander of the rescue forces of the “White Helmets” operating in opposition-held areas, is more accustomed to rescuing the victims of the bombing.

He said rescuers were allowed to go home to see their families for the first time on Tuesday, after round-the-clock operations in the past eight days that required every volunteer and every piece of equipment.

“It was the hardest week of our lives,” he said.

“What happened to us… it’s the first time this has happened in all parts of the world,” he said. “There was an earthquake, and the international community and the United Nations are not helping.”

Saleh and others in the northwest said that more lives could have been saved in Syria had the outside world acted faster.

The earthquake struck Turkish cities, where major humanitarian organizations running relief operations in Syria are stationed, and closed the only border crossing from Turkey for days.

Subsequently, dozens of UN aid trucks transported food and medicine through this crossing, which was authorized by a 2014 Security Council resolution that allowed aid into Syria without Assad’s approval.

On Tuesday, a second border crossing was opened for aid deliveries after Assad gave his approval, marking a shift for Damascus that has long opposed cross-border aid deliveries to the opposition enclave.

But the move was met with skepticism and even anger from many Idlib residents, as most of Idlib’s 4 million residents hail from other bombed-out provinces.

“If Assad wanted to help these poor people, he wouldn’t have displaced them in the first place,” said Juma Ramadan, a day laborer.

The trucks did not include any heavy equipment and machinery that rescuers say they need to clear the rubble faster – and that would have helped with reconstruction.

The economic crisis in Syria may also hinder rebuilding, as 77% of families are already unable to secure their basic needs, according to a UN assessment.

Idlib residents have no choice but to rebuild, as Turkey, which hosts 3.6 million Syrians, no longer accepts others, while many fear crossing the front into areas controlled by Assad’s forces. But resources are scarce.

“The situation is really tragic,” said Abdul Rahman Muhammad, a displaced Syrian from the neighboring Aleppo governorate.

“Anyone who works as a laborer and rents a house… if you need $10 a day in expenses and you can barely get by — how are you supposed to rebuild?” He said.

Abdel Razzaq Zaqzouq, the local representative of the Syrian American Medical Society, said the hospitals used all their reserves of medical equipment to treat earthquake victims.

Health Minister Hussein Bazar of the self-declared Salvation Government in northwest Syria said the displacement of tens of thousands could lead to a “massive” increase in the cholera outbreak ravaging the water-stressed region, as well as a rise in other diseases.

“It’s not about a tent or a piece of food. It’s not the main thing for people,” he said.

“People want to feel that they are human beings who deserve to live in dignity in this region.”

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