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The rare look at the earthquake damage inside government-controlled Syria


We have a rare look now at the earthquake damage inside the government-controlled part of Syria. Few outside journalists have been able to get there. It's a nearly closed country for reporters and tightly controlled. But the quake damage is extensive, and the needs stretch back far beyond that. NPR's Aya Batrawy went there on a relief flight run by the government of the United Arab Emirates. She joins us from the Syrian city of Jableh. And, first, tell us more about where you are and what you're seeing.

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: Yeah, well, first of all, we don't quite understand what the death toll is in the government parts of Syria. There haven't been any recent figures. But one doctor told me that in the area that I'm at, the Latakia Governorate on the Mediterranean coast, there have been 805 deaths and over 1,300 hospitalizations. And in other areas of Syria, it is far worse in the north. However, we have seen collapsed buildings, buildings that are cracked and unlivable. But the real devastation here is from the civil war. And that is what struck me because this is a government stronghold, an area where the government is firmly in control. But this is clearly a country that has been run down by 12 years of conflict.

Homes in this area of Jableh south of Latakia, where I was today and where I'm speaking to you from, are half-built, shoddy construction. There's unfinished stairways. And so many of these homes are barely standing after the earthquakes, and they're unlivable. There was a family I met that is sleeping next to the rubble of a home where people died, and kids are sleeping together under a tarp. There's wild dogs roaming around at night. It's still bitter cold outside. And the mothers I spoke to tell me they're not even sleeping at all.

SHAPIRO: Wow. I understand you went out with relief workers from the Emirati Red Crescent and met people who were struggling. What did they tell you?

BATRAWY: Yeah. I went to these villages and towns far outside of the cities where there's almost no outside visibility. And, Ari, people tell me all they want is to secure food for their kids and a safe future for them. But people are suffering. I mean, every home I visited, eventually at one point or another, grown men and women would break into tears about their situation. One woman opened her fridge for me. And this is, you know, something she was embarrassed to show me. There was no food inside. She told me for breakfast she'd had some olives and tea.

I saw kids who don't go to school because their parents can't even afford paper and pencils for them. I mean, schools here are free. And you walk around, and you see that there's no stores. There's maybe small stands with potatoes, tomatoes and onions, but even few people can afford that. There's certainly no butcher shops, no clothing stores, playgrounds. The city is dark at night. Their electricity is patchy. And that's all because of the war.

SHAPIRO: Big picture, what are the longer-term reasons for the economic problems that you're seeing?

BATRAWY: Yeah. I mean, look. Syria's bombing of the opposition prompted some pretty wide-scale U.S. sanctions. But those are supposed to allow for humanitarian supplies and medicine. The reality is different, of course. Banks would rather not deal with Syria at all. And so the result is a lack of critical aid. I met with Dr. Hawazen Makhlouf. He's a senior physician at one of the hospitals here in Latakia.

HAWAZEN MAKHLOUF: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: He says they're missing MRI machines, CAT scan machines, heartbeat monitoring machines and medicines for cancer, even anesthesia. He says all of this is difficult to bring in. They're unable to purchase these things to bring them in. And as I crisscrossed villages and towns here, I was talking to people about how much they're earning a month. What are they living off of? And families of six and more were telling me they earn 100,000 liras a month. That's around $14 a month for an entire family. And before the war, that amount would have been $2,000 a month.

And so what I saw the Emirati relief forces here doing today on the ground goes far beyond earthquake relief. They were giving out cash in hand to people who cannot afford cancer treatment. They were giving out boxes of food to orphans. And people I met here were asking me, when's the government coming to help? You know, when - do you know when the government is going to come check on our home? And it just shows that they haven't seen any help yet from the government.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Aya Batrawy in Jableh, Syria. Thank you.

BATRAWY: Thanks, Ari.


Aya Batrawy
Aya Batraway is an NPR International Correspondent based in Dubai. She joined in 2022 from the Associated Press, where she was an editor and reporter for over 11 years.