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Asharq Al-Awsat
Asharq Al-Awsat
Asharq Al-Awsat

Donations and Despair: Syria’s Northwest Tries to Rebuild after Quake

Intisar Sheikho, stands on rubble of the building where her brother Musheer and his family lived, that collapsed from last month's deadly earthquake in the opposition-held town of Jandaris, Syria March 12, 2023. (Reuters)

Hussein Mankawi has little hope he will ever rebuild his home and food distribution businesses in the northwest Syrian city of Jandaris after they were reduced to rubble by last month's deadly earthquake, wiping out his life's work.

"What can we do? We'll put up a tent instead. There is nothing but tents," he said, standing by the mangled ruins of his home in the rebel-held region.

The Feb. 6 earthquakes were the worst modern-day natural disasters to strike Syria and Türkiye, killing more than 56,000 people across the two countries.

Türkiye has pledged state-led efforts to rebuild more than 300,000 homes within the first year and the cash-strapped Syrian government has created a compensation fund for victims and offered temporary housing to the displaced.

But this help is unlikely to reach Syria's northwest, an enclave controlled by rival anti-government opposition factions and home to 4.5 million people -- 2 million of whom lived in tented camps even before the quake struck, according to the United Nations.

International organizations struggle to access the zone regularly and there has been no visible centralized reconstruction effort.

The UN says more than 100,000 people have been displaced in the region since the first quake struck.

On the edge of destitution and with nowhere to turn, residents are trying to make do on their own.

Mankawi is recovering what possessions he can with help from a local entrepreneur who agreed to move the rubble of his home in return for keeping the metal inside it - a deal underscoring the deep deprivation in the area.

"No-one is helping us at all. We've seen nothing," Mankawi said.


Damage has not been limited to homes.

In Jandaris, one of the hardest-hit areas, half of the 48 schools required reconstruction or repairs, as did more than 20 kilometers of water and sanitation networks and most of the city's roads, said Mahmoud Haffar, head of the local council.

But he said local authorities did not have the resources to rebuild.

"Frankly, local capabilities are very limited and (rebuilding) will require international help... there is no clear funding for reconstruction and repairs," he said.

Donors at an EU-led conference on Monday pledged 7 billion euros ($7.5bln) to help reconstruct Türkiye.

But the bloc has sanctions on Damascus in place and said it would only finance humanitarian assistance and early recovery but not full-scale reconstruction for as long as there is no political dialogue between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his adversaries.

Foreign state funding for reconstruction in the region held by opposition factions, who seek Assad's ouster, faces additional stumbling blocks, according to three diplomats working on Syria.

The presence of rival armed groups in the region is one of the main issues, they say, noting that the most powerful group, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, is designated a terrorist organization by the US and United Nations.

Most international aid that has reached the area over the past decade has been earmarked for humanitarian relief, not reconstruction, a trend that was likely to continue, according to Karam Shaar, a political economist at the Middle East Institute think-tank.

"In the foreseeable future, people will continue to rely on private funding to reconstruct their buildings or just move to tents instead," he said.

Crowdfunded recovery

Before the quakes struck, Syrian NGO Molham Team was building a sprawling 1,500-unit housing complex in Azaz, driven by the ambitious goal of relocating families from tents into formal housing, team member Baraa Baboli said.

It was inspired by the realization that Syrians could not wait for help from outside, and was financed through online crowdfunding.

After the quake, Molham launched a new appeal, raising more than $11 million intended for the construction of an additional 2,300 units between Idlib, Salqin and Harem - all areas hit hard by the quake.

Meanwhile, property developers in the area say they have begun to adapt their construction plans to fit quake trauma and potential shortages in raw materials.

Abdo Zamzam, the director of a local construction company, said projects before the quake were mostly four- to five-story buildings but consultations with locals showed most people now wanted to live in one- or two-story buildings they deemed safer.

Price rises

Construction materials in the enclave are almost entirely imported from Türkiye, raising fears the Syrian zone could face shortages when mass reconstruction begins across the border or struggle to pay higher prices.

Prices of cement and metal have already risen by around 30 percent, according to developers and a Syrian border official, from $85 to more than $120 for a ton of cement, and from $600 to more than $800 for a ton of metal.

A senior Turkish official told Reuters authorities had not restricted exports of materials needed for construction - such as cement, sand and tiles - and had no plans to do so as these materials were abundant in Türkiye.

At the Turkish-Syrian border crossing at Cilvegozu, long lines of trucks, many loaded with cement from factories based in southern Türkiye purchased by private traders in Syria, have waited to cross into northwest Syria.

At the same crossing, tens of thousands of Syrians have crossed back into their homelands, many to rebuild their lives in the northwest, risking more pressure on already-scarce housing.

About 55,000 Syrians have returned since mid-February, Syrian opposition border official Mazen Alloush said, adding they had not yet recorded any trips back to Türkiye.

Ahmad al-Ahmad, a 22-year-old Syrian who worked as a tailor in the devastated Turkish city of Kahramanmaras, said he was moving back to Syria after both his home and workplace were heavily damaged.

He said he did not know what awaited him.

"We were looking for a better life," he said as he waited to be let through the border with his family.

"We migrated in order to settle down and now we are back to square one; displacement after displacement."

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