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After a decade of war, quake that struck northwest Syria made a bad situation worse

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The United States Treasury Department says that it will issue a license permitting earthquake aid to arrive in Syria that would have otherwise been prohibited by U.S. sanctions. According to the United Nations, northwestern Syria is home to about 1.8 million displaced people who are already suffering from more than a decade of war - and now this. Among the international aid groups on the ground is Mercy Corps. I spoke earlier by Skype with the group's Syria country director, Kieren Barnes, and he told me about the particular challenges of providing earthquake relief in the area.

KIEREN BARNES: It's a very cut-off, isolated pocket of Syria. The infrastructure is very weak. So even just trying to make calls with them on the first few days was hard. The electricity was out, the internet, the phone lines. So most of this week has been about gathering information and doing kind of bare minimum at this point.

MARTÍNEZ: And what kind of information are you hearing from your colleagues?

BARNES: So we have about 45 staff who are actually based in northwest Syria. Many of them have been affected personally, and sadly, some of them have lost their wives and children in this disaster. But those who are able to work are going out to the communities. They've seen lots of people sleeping in cars, people standing next to rubble and hearing their family members stuck inside, but there's nothing they can do for them. They don't have the same level of heavy machinery or expertise. So that's been extremely difficult.

And then on top of that, it's the winter. So it's freezing conditions, snowing. People are homeless. The heating supplies are not good enough and not good quality. People are burning rubbish just to stay warm. So it's - and it's also very confusing. I think that's the other factor. Especially in the first few hours with the aftershocks, people were confused. They didn't know where to go, they didn't know where to stay and what was the safest thing for them and their families.

MARTÍNEZ: The U.N. aid convoy crossed into northwest Syria for the first time since the earthquake hit on Monday. How much do you think this will help the people that really need it?

BARNES: That supply line is absolutely critical to this response. Normally, we only have a few crossing points into Turkey and one that is designated that the U.N. can use. That's not enough in normal times, but particularly with this earthquake, we are going to need a lot of supplies coming in. Most of the organizations, including ourselves, we have some preposition kits. So we have 1,700 kits that we're able to distribute now. We've managed to procure another 800 hygiene kits and 150 shelter kits.

But eventually, those supplies are going to run out - maybe in a matter of days and certainly in weeks. So we need both the humanitarian aid to be flowing through with the U.N., but we also need the commercial sector to be running as well so that we can procure directly inside Syria and deliver to people on the ground.

MARTÍNEZ: Does Turkey need to open up more crossing points, or is security just too touchy of a situation there?

BARNES: It's a very difficult political issue, and I think it's for all parties involved who have been involved in this conflict to make it possible for us to access people and the supplies that we need.

MARTÍNEZ: Can you help our listeners understand just how challenging the situation is for aid workers in Syria after more than a decade of war?

BARNES: Absolutely. I mean, our teams are incredibly resilient. I mean, they've been through a lot from the last 12 years, and to be honest, in the last 12 months. We've been dealing with the impacts of the conflict in Ukraine, the lack of food that's been provided in northwest Syria, and then more recently, cholera just before winter - dealing with all these crises, one after another after another. And then there are people who are displaced inside northwest Syria multiple times, constantly moving with their families in temporary shelter. The earthquake on Monday is particularly acute. It's - you know, within minutes people's lives have changed, and our teams are having to respond to that. But they themselves have also been affected by it.

We can't bring in people into the area. That's one of the biggest difficulties. We can't kind of fly in lots of specialists to this. This is Syrians helping Syrians on the ground. And I don't think we have the full picture yet. And we're certainly moving more into the humanitarian phase where we need to provide for those who have survived. And we need to think about their shelter, their food, their water, and to keep them warm. And that's going to be the priority now, I think.

MARTÍNEZ: What does Mercy Corps need the most to effectively do its work right now?

BARNES: We certainly need the international community to step up. Syria has fallen out of the spotlight. So we need the finances that we can then go and purchase things inside Syria and start responding. We're looking at things like water supply to the camps where we work, which have been damaged. Soil is seeping in. It's contaminating the water. We need to address those issues immediately, and we need the funding to do that.

MARTÍNEZ: And is that how people here in the U.S. can help with this situation in Syria and Turkey?

BARNES: Absolutely. I think it's the fastest way to respond. Money moves quickly, obviously, and we can get that into Syria and our teams can go out and work with local suppliers. We have engineers. We need to recruit more staff, to be honest, on the ground and to get them working. So this is the most urgent thing that we need right now.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Kieren Barnes, Syrian country director for Mercy Corps. Kieren,

thanks.

BARNES: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.