After more than a decade of civil war, during which more than 300,000 civilians have died, Syria is hit by a new crisis. People are digging graves again, for the adults and children who managed to survive the war.

You would think that after 12 years of war, Syrians have seen and experienced it all, from bombings blowing up their homes, schools, and hospitals, to water and electricity shortages. However, the earthquake that hit northeastern Syria left even more suffering in its wake. Many helplessly witnessed the cries for help of their loved ones alone, without teams of rescuers or machines to remove the layers of rubble.

“Like the end of days”

“These are the most tragic days that I have seen in my entire life,” says doctor Nehad Abdulmajeed, who thought he had already seen it all. He tells that people are coming to the hospital bringing with them the lifeless bodies of their loved ones, for whom the doctors can do nothing but cry, as does Abdulmajeed, who confesses that he cried for all the children who managed to survive the war only to be killed by the earthquake.

“It is unlikely that a single child has escaped unharmed, physically or psychologically, from the areas devastated by the earthquake,” said UNICEF spokesperson, Joe English. Syria is now going through trauma on top of other traumas, says the UNICEF official.

English says that there is currently no data on the number of children who were rescued or became victims of the earthquake.

The earthquake’s aftermath feels like the end of days, says journalist Mohamad Kazmooz, who spent the first 12 hours after the quake helping the White Helmets rescue group remove bodies from under the collapsed buildings of his neighbourhood.

Kazmooz says that Idlib, the city where he lives, cannot cope with another disaster, after years of war, drought, and hunger. He took refuge with his family on a farm and they now sleep under some olive trees. None of his acquaintances have gone back to sleep at their houses, and the journalist believes that 80% of the city’s population is too scared to return to their own homes. Although not all constructions have collapsed, people are afraid to take shelter in the buildings that have been shaken by the bombings, the earthquake, and its aftershocks. Not even the very cold days of winter can convince them.

On the night of the earthquake, some people thought it was barrel bombs dropped from a helicopter. Among them is Ismail Alabdullah, a 36-year-old man who rushed to shelter his son. He is a volunteer with the White Helmets rescuers in the village of Sarmada and says that they are going through something very different from anything they have experienced before. They are used to pulling people out from under the rubble, but now they helplessly witness the death of those buried under the buildings, because they do not have the necessary equipment to save them.

Caught between the Damascus regime and militant groups in control of the region, Syrians in the northwest of the country (about 4.5 million) were already in an unbearable situation: they live under the threat of airstrikes and ground fighting and 90% of them depend on aid to survive.

The White Helmets rescue group announced on Friday the end of search and rescue operations in rebel-controlled regions because it believes that “no one trapped under the rubble is still alive.” The White Helmets rescued and aided 2,950 wounded in opposition-controlled areas in Idlib and Aleppo provinces, but their mission was hampered by the lack of fuel for their machines, the lack of modern technical equipment, and the “lack of international aid and support.”

“We don’t understand. Why are we alone?” asks Mahmoud Hafar, the mayor of Jinderis. The question has become the painful leitmotif of an analysis that contrasts the aid Turkey has received (with a large number of trucks that blocked the roads, transporting aid ranging from excavators to essential products, thus increasing the chances of rescue) with the silence in the city of Jinderis, where, for a while, only the screams of those buried under the rubble could be heard.

The need for support for Syria

Up to 5.3 million people are at risk of becoming homeless following the earthquake in Syria, said Sivanka Dhanapala, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) representative in Syria.

Poor water supplies and sanitation infrastructure in parts of Syria and the earthquake could aggravate existing outbreaks of cholera and measles, warned Rick Brennan, the regional emergency director of the WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean office.

Humanitarian aid shipments have been hindered by the conflicts that have been ravaging Syria for over a decade. The first United Nations convoy took four days to cross from Turkey to northwestern Syria. The first European aid shipment for Syria landed in Beirut on Saturday—a shipment of 30 tons of humanitarian aid from the Italian government.

The northwest of the country, which is heavily affected by the earthquake, has received little humanitarian aid, compared to the areas controlled by the government. There is only one approved humanitarian corridor between Turkey and Syria, the Bab al-Hawa crossing, to enter the northwestern province of Idlib, which is controlled by opposition forces.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres asked the Security Council to authorise the opening of new cross-border humanitarian aid points between Turkey and Syria. In addition, Turkey said it was working to open two new routes to rebel-held areas.

Long-term relief efforts could be completed in two to three years in Turkey, but it would take five to ten years to just get underway in Syria, warned Caroline Holt, director of disasters, climate and crises at the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC).

Carmen Lăiu is an editor at Signs of the Times Romania and ST Network.