News 08 Feb 2023

Syria: “Less than one minute was worse than 12 years of war”

Shocked and with their houses destroyed or damaged, many families have taken to sleeping in churches, convents, or even hospitals. Faced with yet another tragedy, Syrians ask for an end to sanctions.

Syria has been at war for almost 12 years but for many people in Aleppo, and other cities that were affected, the devastating earthquake of 6 February was more traumatic. 

“If you ask the people of Aleppo about the war they lived through, they express their feelings of pain, fear, despair about the future, loss of safety, etc. They use many different expressions to express the 12-year war. But if you ask them about the earthquake that they were exposed to, the answer is just one word: horror”, says Sister Annie Demerjian, a Catholic religious sister who lives and works in the city, to Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). 

“Imagine that you are in bed at 4 a.m., and the floor begins to shake violently. Doors open, glass shatters, the walls sway violently, and the sounds of screaming and collapsing come from outside, and only one word is shouted out from the depths of terror: O Lord! Less than a minute is stronger than the whole war. In war, there are safe areas and others that are hot, but here, the whole country is hot”, she adds. 

“Our hospital might fall”

Sr. Anne Marie Gagnon, of the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition, another project partner of ACN, is the director of the main Catholic hospital of St. Louis, in Aleppo, and has been very busy helping survivors of the earthquake which caused large-scale destruction in this city. 

In a message to ACN, sent on the day of the disaster, the religious sister says that “in Aleppo, many apartment buildings have fallen, there are many dead and injured. On top of that it is raining and very cold.”

“We have operated just now on two people with injuries. We have a Christian family in the hospital whose family members have died in the earthquake. We are now awaiting the arrival of the priest who died, Fr Daher.”

The hospital itself survived the earthquake, but there is fear that structural damage has made it unsafe. “At our hospital, there is a part that looks as though it may fall, the stones have moved and we are afraid they will give out, but mostly we are focused on providing free care for the people who are injured right now”, says Sister Anne Marie.

Nowhere to go

Building collapse is a recurring fear in a city that has still not recovered from years of fighting and bombing, which had already made many buildings structurally weaker. Churches have also been affected, including the Syriac Orthodox Cathedral of St. George. 

Despite this, some families have nowhere else to go. “People are now asking at the churches and convents, and with us at the hospital, if they can stay there until the crisis passes. Many buildings have fissures in them, and the people who are on the fourth or the fifth floor are afraid to stay there. We have put some mattresses on the ground for our personnel so they can stay here”, the director explains. 

This is confirmed by Sister Arlene, a Carmelite sister, also from Aleppo. Although her community is usually cloistered, faced with this tragic event the nuns opened their doors to people seeking help. “The families are afraid and they do not want to return to their houses, they are looking for a place to spend the night. We have had five families come to us, and we are sheltering them. Other families are going to the schools or churches.”

“Perhaps if the night is OK, they will return home, but there is damage in their homes. Tonight, as a congregation we are praying for peace. The people here they are shocked, they are not talking very much. So many were injured or died”, she adds.

Allow humanitarian help to enter the country

Although Syria was not the only country affected by the earthquake, and damage and deaths could be significantly higher in Turkey, in Syria it is one more catastrophe to add to an already long list. 

“First a war, then COVID, then sanctions, and now an earthquake. The people are so poor: they don’t have money to eat, or oil to cook with, or grain”, says Sister Anne Marie to ACN.

Many Western and regional countries, as well as organisations, have already promised aid, but the Syrians hope for more. “We need to remove the sanctions. We ask our benefactors to pray for us and to pray for it. They need to talk to the powers in Europe”, Sister Anne Marie pleads. 

ACN President Thomas Heine-Geldern also sees an urgent need for action in the area of money transfers for emergency aid. “It is our duty to provide help to the suffering civilian population of Syria – and especially to the rapidly dwindling Christian minority. In their name I beg you to implement the existing international legal framework, which allows humanitarian exceptions to the embargo”, Thomas Heine-Geldern declared.

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To stay updated on the situation in Syria go here.

Article by by Filipe d’Avillez (with support of Xavier Bisits and Amer Jabbour).

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