WHO Chief Is First Top UN Official to Visit Northwest Syria in 12 Years
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (centre) is the first top UN official to visit Syria since the start of its civil war.

World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is the first senior United Nations (UN) official to visit northwest Syria since the war began 12 years ago.

The visit was a bid to underline the organization’s commitment to the region, which has provided around a third of all medicines to arrive in northwest Syria in the past decade. Since the earthquake, that number has risen to two-thirds.

According to the UN, the devastating earthquakes have killed at least 50,000 people across Turkey and Syria. Tens of thousands more are still missing, hundreds of thousands have been left homeless, and thousands of families are yet to be reunited.

“The suffering is impossible to describe in words or even in pictures,” Tedros said at a Friday press briefing. “The destruction is immense.”

While NGOs and local authorities expressed gratitude for the WHO chief’s visit, they also voiced deep “disappointment” in the UN’s high-level team for avoiding setting foot in the region since the beginning of the war.

The scale of devastation in Turkey has been extreme, counting at least 44,000 deaths and $34.2 billion in infrastructural damage. A World Bank report published on Monday estimated the costs of reconstruction and economic disruption will likely cost twice that amount.

In Syria, about 6,000 people have been confirmed dead, mostly in the rebel-held northwest. But while the challenges and trauma faced on both sides of the Turkish-Syrian border are similar, the Syrians are working with far fewer resources.

“Twelve years of war has destroyed infrastructure, homes and hope,” Tedros said, “Drought, economic collapse, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ongoing cholera outbreak have heaped misery upon misery. The risks now being faced by people on the Syrian side are far higher than those living just a few kilometers away.”

Before the earthquakes, 15.3 million Syrians – 70% of the country’s population – needed of humanitarian assistance. Price increases of more than 800% in the past two years had driven another 90% below the poverty line and led to food insecurity for 12.4 million people.

In an address to the UN Security Council on Tuesday, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths called the situation in Syria an “almost unbelievable tragedy.”

“Amid the harsh winter season, the earthquake has destroyed entire neighborhoods, rendering them uninhabitable … In many areas, four to five families are packed into tents,” Griffiths said. “The risk of disease is growing amid pre-existing cholera outbreaks. Women and children face increased harassment, violence, and risk of exploitation.”

UN efforts to mobilize international relief funding are underway, but underfunded. The emergency appeal for $397.6 million in aid for Syrian quake victims has raised just 42% of its target. Meanwhile, the 2023 Syria Humanitarian Response Plan – the largest humanitarian appeal in the world – needs $4.8 billion to address needs pre-dating the earthquake.

Children have also been caught in the crossfire, with thousands separated from their parents, without access to education, or displaced from their homes.

“I met a 15-year-old boy who broke his arms when he jumped out of a window during the earthquake,” Tedros said. “He hasn’t been to school since he was nine years old.”

With world leaders set to gather for a donor conference in Brussels next week on the 12th anniversary of the Syrian war, Tedros called on the international community to confront the humanitarian crisis.

“The Syrian people have suffered more than most people ever will, or ever could,” he said. “Their needs, dreams and hopes are the same as all people; for health, food, water, shelter, and peace for a better future for their children.”

Image Credits: WHO.

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