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The earthquake catastrophe exacerbates the pain of war-weary Syrian women


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Wearing a heavy woolen shawl against the cold, Aisha dragged her feet, her little granddaughter huddled behind her, as they walked 15 minutes from her tent to the nearest bathroom in a nearby building, the only place they had to shower.

Seven days after an earthquake destroyed their home in the northwestern Syrian city of Atarib, the 43-year-old woman still has no access to water, electricity or heat for herself and 12 of her family, all crammed into a single tent.

“When I look at our house, I wonder how anyone got out alive?” Aisha said. “Maybe it would have been better if I had died,” she added. “I came from under the rubble carrying the rubble of the whole world on my shoulders.”

She does not know how much more she and the other Syrians can afford. Women in particular have shouldered the responsibility of keeping separated families together during the last 12 years of civil war.

Conflict and economic collapse have left millions of people dependent on international aid. Adding to the chain of hardships is now the devastation caused by the earthquake that has killed more than 31,000 people and displaced millions in southern Turkey and northern Syria.

With hospitals overwhelmed with earthquake victims, Aisha is unable to obtain medical services to treat and monitor her liver disease. She and her husband lost their sources of income in the earthquake. The taxi he was driving was wrecked, and her stock of clothes, which she had once sold to neighbours, was destroyed.

They have nothing to support for their six children and five grandchildren, including two she took in after one of her sons was killed in the war. They must share mattresses to sleep in their tent.

Sobbing, Aisha said, “If hardships are a sign of God’s love, then this means that God truly loves Syrians.” Like most women in this conservative society, she spoke on condition that her last name be withheld.

Their tent is in a camp for earthquake victims in Atarib, part of the last opposition-held area in northwest Syria that has seen bombing and fighting for years.

Walking among the rows of destroyed houses in the town, it is difficult to distinguish which ones fell from the earthquake and which from the intense military operations at the height of the fighting.

The war in Syria has placed a special burden and isolation on women, as many men have been killed, arrested, maimed or forced to leave the country. The number of households headed by women across Syria increased by nearly 80% to constitute more than a fifth of all households in 2020, according to the United Nations.

Even before the earthquake, more than 7 million women and girls across Syria needed essential health services and support against physical and sexual violence. Child marriage was on the rise, and hundreds of thousands of girls were out of school.

significant health risks

The immediate impact of the earthquake put at least 350,000 pregnancies in Syria and Turkey at risk, according to UN figures.

Women in the opposition-held northwest are particularly at risk. Most of the region’s 4 million residents fled there after being displaced from other parts of Syria. Health care was already strained and dependent on foreign aid. Non-emergency medical services have now been suspended to deal with the earthquake.

“We can treat women after trauma or after childbirth, but they need to return to a safe environment with minimal housing, nutrition and clean water. Unfortunately, this is not generally found in the northwest,” said Basil Termanini, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Syrian Society, Basel Termanini. American Medical Association which has dozens of facilities in the Northwest.

Throughout the war, Aisha and her family repeatedly fled their home in Atarib during periods of bombing to safer areas, where they would stay for months until they could return. One of her sons was killed in 2019, and she has been caring for his two young children ever since.

But she said, “In 12 years of war, we have never tasted terror and pain like that night” of the earthquake.

When the earthquake struck before dawn on February 6, Aisha and her family managed to get out of the building, which was collapsing. They stood in the cold, pouring down rain.

The nearby building was completely flattened, killing many inside – including a woman who had just given birth, her baby, her seven other children, and her mother, who had arrived a few hours earlier to help care for the newborn.

The building’s dead now lie in a mass grave at the far end of a neighboring plot of farmland. The landowner donated the land because the cemeteries were filled with earthquake victims.

Things were really tough before the earthquake. In opposition-held territory, 90% of the population depends on humanitarian aid.

The only bread winner

She said there was no work for the men, many of whom were war invalids. Some women find jobs in community service and with help groups. Others do household chores such as making soap or sewing clothes. There are hundreds of female civil defense volunteers, many of whom are participating for the first time in search and rescue missions.

But in a conservative society, it is not easy to get jobs for women.

Halima, a 30-year-old mother of two, lost her husband in the early days of the war. For years, she’s been hopping between displaced persons shelters in the Northwest, looking for more food baskets to donate. The earthquake has caused cracks in the place where she is currently staying and she is afraid to stay there but has nowhere else to go.

“I pray for God’s grace. Maybe someone can take care of my children,” she said on Sunday, as she bought clothes she had donated from a Turkish Red Crescent warehouse.

International aid has only flowed to earthquake victims in the northwest of the country, adding to anger at the United Nations.

Feelings have been building for some time. Humanitarian aid to Syria, which has been mired in one of the world’s most complex crises for years, has been among the best donor-funded. But the gap between funding and need has grown, and UN appeals for emergency response have gone more than 50% unanswered. In 2021, the health sector in northwest Syria was 60% underfunded, with only $6.4 million out of $23.3 million covered.

When the earthquake struck, hospitals were not only damaged by the tremors but also overwhelmed with wounded and injured people, with supplies of essential emergency kits running low. Maternity hospitals are overwhelmed with premature deliveries and pregnancy complications.

“Mothers still live on the streets,” said Ikram Habboush, director of the Atarib maternity hospital. “We don’t have enough incubators for early delivery. The situation is far from stable.”

Over the years of conflict, Syrian women have exhausted their coping strategies. Natural disaster is the last thing they prepare for.

Aisha said, “We are tired.”

“For 12 years we have not slept a night for fear of bombing, air strikes or displacement. Now we have eternal displacement,” she said. “We live the tragedy of all tragedies.”

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