Syria earthquakes: "For now, we are alone.”

Hundreds of MSF staff in Syria mobilize as part of an emergency plan to support hospitals.

MSF continues support in Aleppo after the earthqueakes

According to the latest estimates, the earthquakes that hit Turkey (renamed Türkiye) and Syria has killed more than 40,000 people. In northwestern Syria, a largely landlocked region, teams from Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) enacted an emergency plan to support hospitals and provide medical and material aid to people, by mobilizing a large part of the 500-person staff active in the country.

Some of the survivors have lost everything: their homes, their clothes, access to food, family members, their money, everything… and now they live in tents. They need clothes and hygiene products, they need water and food, they need everything.”

Ahmed Rahmo

The MSF hospital in Atmeh, which normally specializes in caring for severe burns, donated medical and non-medical equipment and sent surgeons to several hospitals in the region. Additionally, MSF’s local projects have also donated supplies to 30 hospitals.

“On February 6, we quickly understood that we were facing a catastrophic situation,” said Mohammad Darwish, deputy director of MSF’s Atmeh hospital. “The destruction was massive in the area, we launched our emergency plan less than three hours after the first earthquake and put our staff on alert.”

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Syrians dig through the rubble left by the earthquake in northwest Syria in 2023.

“Every day, our teams share tragic stories with us,” said Ahmed Rahmo, the MSF project coordinator for the Idlib region. “Some of the survivors have lost everything: their homes, their clothes, access to food, family members, their money, everything… and now they live in tents. They need clothes and hygiene products, they need water and food, they need everything.”

Urgent need for medical equipment and supplies

MSF teams at Atmeh hospital started to send medical equipment to around ten hospitals in the region, including to Bab al-Hawa, Darat Izza, Idlib, and Atarib. “All the hospitals were overwhelmed, including ours,” said Samih Kaddour, director of the Aqrabat hospital, specializing in orthopedic and reconstructive surgery.

“MSF teams were the first to help us and to share their resources. They gave us materials, including supplies for making casts and sterilizing wounds. We received 800 people in the emergency room, 250 of whom needed surgical treatment. Even five days later, the wounded continue to flow in.”

MSF response to the earthquakes through Atmeh Hospital
MSF response to the earthquakes through Atmeh Hospital

MSF supplies on their way to distribution. Syria 2023 © Abdul Majeed Al Qareh

A huge influx of wounded people

MSF surgeons from the hospital were also sent to certain health facilities in the region to help their colleagues deal with with large numbers of injured people. “I went to a hospital located in the immediate vicinity of Türkiye,” said Dr. Mohammad Zaitoun.

“Due to the closure of the border, and the impossibility of receiving external support or transferring the wounded, this put immense pressure on us. There were many wounded, the medical staff was exhausted. We did our best together with the MSF teams in Atmeh. As a surgeon, I was in the operating room. We had never witnessed such an influx of wounded people, except perhaps during the bombardments or massacres that took place in the region.” Ambulances from Atmeh hospital made it possible to transfer patients between facilities.

For several years, MSF mobile clinic teams have been providing health care to people living in the region’s many camps for people displaced by the war. These mobile clinics were quickly adapted adapted to the situation and dispatched to places where the victims of the earthquake were gathering, including Sarmada, Kammouneh, and Al Dana.

MSF response to the earthquakes through Atmeh Hospital
Syria 2023 © Abdul Majeed Al Qareh

“We still do not have a clear vision of the situation in the wider area of Atmeh, " said Darwish. “We just know that the hospitals are full of wounded people and that the needs are immense. The people of the region need everything. We immediately opened our logistics warehouses and distributed hundreds of essential items, but it is not enough. 2,500 blankets have been donated to hospitals for their patients, and hundreds of kits of basic necessities have been distributed to families, among others.”

Access to northwestern Syria is limited

In the immediate future, MSF teams in the region are drawing on their emergency stock while waiting for more supplies. But international shipments have been hampered by the political tensions surrounding the region. Until the earthquake, Bab al-Hawa was the only crossing point for humanitarian aid from Turkey to this part of northwestern Syria.

MSF response to the earthquakes through Atmeh Hospital
A resident of Atmeh who lost his house during the earthquake. The MSF team provided him with a tent so that he and his family could take shelter. Syria 2023 © Abdul Majeed Al Qareh

“Almost a week after the earthquakes, we have not received any help from outside,” said Moheed Kaddour, director of a hospital in Atmeh, and brother of Samih Kaddour. “Support only came from other hospitals, local communities, or organizations already present before the disaster. In this, the MSF hospital in Atmeh played an important role. However, this responsiveness, built through regular support for a network of around twenty health structures, is now facing certain limits, such as the impossibility of transferring patients who are in serious condition to Turkey.”

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More help is urgently needed

“Usually we can transfer our most severely burned patients to appropriate health structures in Türkiye,” said Darwish. “The MSF hospital in Atmeh provides essential care, but also has its limitations and can only adequately care for people with moderate burns. Today, there are no more specialized hospital beds in the governorate of Idlib and one cannot cross the border.”

In northwestern Syria, the earthquakes are disrupting a region that already has more than two million displaced people living in camps and where access to health care is lacking.

“Nine days after the earthquakes, we are still mobilized by the care of our patients,” said Kaddour. “We are still performing life-saving surgeries on crush syndrome victims. This pathology, which results from a prolonged compression of the muscles, can be fatal by causing saturation and renal failure. The situation is indescribable and for now, we are alone.”

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