Aleppo is a martyred city, hit by shelling during the Syrian war and now devastated by the three successive tremors that killed thousands and destroyed tens of thousands of buildings in southern Turkey and northwestern Syria. The people of Syria’s second-largest city, known for its beauty and its long history, are struggling to survive and overcome this harsh new ordeal. Alongside NGOs and local authorities, Christian churches are also taking part in helping the inhabitants cast into a desperate situation by the earthquake. The apostolic nuncio to Syria, Cardinal Mario Zenari, is himself in Aleppo. On Tuesday, we spoke by phone with Father Haroutioun, a Franciscan involved in earthquake relief efforts in Aleppo, to get a picture of the situation in the city.
Father Haroutioun, what is the condition of Aleppo and its people after the earthquakes that ravaged Turkey, Syria and other countries in the Middle East?
People are out in the streets in the rain, in the cold and darkness at night. There are people camped out in public gardens with blankets. They have nothing left but small bags with a few essential items and are waiting for those who can offer them some help and support. It should be taken into account that the earthquake came in the middle of the night. It was just past 4 a.m. I was awake despite the late hour because electricity had returned [in Aleppo, as in the rest of Syria, electricity is only available for a few hours a day] and I had taken the opportunity to wash the dishes and do the laundry. At first, after the first tremor, I thought it could be an explosion, a bomb, then I realized it was an earthquake. I ran out into the street like everyone else. So many panicked residents came out of houses and buildings wearing light clothes, some didn’t even have time to put on their shoes. Now whole families have only cars for shelter. Others have nowhere to go and are staying outdoors. These days it’s very cold, temperatures continue to drop even below freezing. So we immediately announced that we would welcome people in our church to shelter them from the cold and rain, and so did many other churches.
Can you give us a provisional tally of the victims and damage of the earthquake?
Yesterday (on Tuesday) there was talk of about 600 dead, more than 1,500 injured and countless still missing. I also know of a Greek Catholic priest who died under the rubble. However, these figures have risen in the last few hours and I fear they will rise more in the coming days. An initial rough calculation has more than 50 buildings completely collapsed. Hundreds of others have been damaged, and some among them are collapsing, putting the population at risk. Keep in mind that so many buildings had already been damaged in past years by the war [from 2011 onward], and in many cases these were the first to crumble when the earthquake hit. Despite being unsafe, the poorest people lived in those buildings; now they don’t even have that roof over their heads anymore.
Here in Syria, not only in Aleppo, the situation is extremely precarious for a good portion of the population. There is a shortage of fuel, so there is no heating, and there is a lack of many basic necessities. As if that wasn’t enough, the authorities have had to shut down the water supply in some parts of the city because the earthquake cracked the pipes, and with the leaking water and the heavy rain, there is a risk that those who are still alive under the rubble will be in an even worse situation.
In all this, we’re doing our part, as we did during the war. We’re distributing what we can, starting with food and blankets. We have three convents in the city and all three are taking in displaced people. In our parish convent in the city center there are about 500 people, and the Terra Santa college, which is on the outskirts, hosts about 2,000. But it’s not enough, and without an end to the sanctions [the international economic sanctions against Syria]it’s not possible to do more to help the people. We see the flow of aid going to our afflicted neighbor Turkey, while Syria is almost prevented from receiving any support or help.
You had a chance to see the situation in the old city of Aleppo, which is a World Heritage Site and which was already damaged during the war years.
Yesterday (on Tuesday) I went through the old city and castle of Aleppo. Unfortunately, I saw that everything that was in precarious condition or partly damaged because of the war has been reduced to rubble by the earthquake. The two small towers of the castle have been seriously damaged. Historical and cultural assets that had been standing for centuries have been destroyed, partly or completely, first because of the war and now because of the earthquake. We will have to recover those stones that represent the history of this city, and the archeological sites, but now we have to take care of the living, because the essentials for people’s survival are lacking. We also have reports of damage suffered by places of worship, in Aleppo and elsewhere. One of our churches in the northwest of the country has been completely destroyed and a convent is badly damaged. A church in Latakiya [on the Mediterranean coast] also suffered severe damage. We are helping the population in those places, nonetheless.