After the earthquake struck, Ali al-Eid dug himself out of his collapsed home in the rebel-held Syrian town of Jinderes and joined the other survivors waiting, dazed, in the rubble-filled streets for help to arrive. But it did not come.
In the days that followed, he and his family slept out in the freezing cold outside the ruin of what was once their mosque, pieces of its golden dome glinting in the wreckage. He eventually secured one of the handful of tents donated by local charities: “But I had to pay $150 for it.” He handed the money to a local who he accused of hoarding scarce supplies, something echoed by many in this town engulfed in grief by the disaster.
The international community responded immediately to the February 6 quake, sending hundreds of millions of dollars in supplies and specialist rescue teams to disaster-hit southern Turkey, just an hour’s drive north of Jinderes.
But in this forsaken patch of rebel-held Syria, no international aid arrived for nearly a week, leaving shell-shocked victims to fend for themselves, as they have got used to doing time and again over 12 years of civil war. “I should have known no one was coming to help us,” said Eid. “No one ever has.”
World attention has largely shifted away from Syria’s conflict, which began in 2011 as an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, as his regime crushed the insurgency to regain control of two-thirds of the country, with help from Russia and Iran. But the last remnants of the armed opposition are holding on in northern enclaves, some under the protection of Turkey.
Almost 4mn people are jammed into one of them, northwestern Idlib province, under the control of a former al-Qaeda affiliate. About 2mn live in enclaves under Turkish control that rely heavily on support from Ankara, including those living around Jinderes. The majority depend on foreign aid to survive.
UN aid chief Martin Griffiths has conceded that his organisation failed in north-west Syria, adding it was his duty to fix this. But it is unclear how that could happen at scale, or fast enough. And for the 2,274 confirmed dead in rebel-held areas, it is already too late.
Aid deliveries to areas outside regime control have been heavily politicised since the war, particularly by Assad and his ally Russia on the UN Security Council. Together, they have gradually restricted aid flows. The UN, which operates in both regime- and opposition-controlled areas, has rarely expressed its discontent, which critics say helps it maintain access to regime-held areas at the expense of desperate residents of the north-west.
The Financial Times, given rare access to the enclave as part of a trip facilitated by the Turkish government that controls the broader area and backs some 50,000 rebel fighters, found people grappling with the enormity of their loss.
Those who survived camped out anywhere they could, amid the rows of crumpled buildings or in the olive groves that dot the area. Some people sought refuge with relatives in older tented settlements, where they have lived for years. Most were still caked in the dust and dirt that had clung to their nightclothes since they scrambled from their homes in the early hours of February 6.
“Maybe we’re being punished for surviving the war,” said Mohammed, a former fighter originally from Homs who borrowed $50 to buy clothes and food for himself and his infant. “Do you have any baby formula?” he asked, before staggering away.
For four days, most aid relief was halted due to damage at the crossing caused by the quake. Under intense global pressure, the UN said on Monday that Damascus would open two more border crossings, allowing several trucks to pass through on Tuesday.
But the move was swiftly denounced by the civil defence workers in north-west Syria, who said the UN had handed “free political gain” to the Assad regime. Meanwhile, UN convoys sent across regime lines towards the north-west found themselves blocked by the former al-Qaeda affiliate.
Most of the UN aid sent since the quake was also pre-planned and did not include emergency relief or rescue equipment.
The FT saw local charities handing out Arabic flatbread, soup and blankets, although trucks from Iraq’s Kurdistan region, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have begun to arrive. Turkey’s disaster relief agency has also sent relief, but the Turks have been preoccupied by their own disaster.
Turkey is the biggest state presence in the rebel-held areas. Ankara has since 2018 launched a number of incursions to push back Kurdish militants whom it considers terrorists but had ruled much of these border areas in Syria, historically home to many Kurds whom have since been pushed out.
Those military operations have evolved into a mission that touches all spheres of security and civilian life, with the Turkish presence felt heavily at every turn. But locals still complain of instability, as dozens of factions compete for resources, and young men run around with guns they barely know how to hold.
The fighters who escorted the FT around Jinderes said the salaries they received from Ankara, worth $50 a month, were not enough to erase their resentment at being occupied by foreigners. “At the same time, without Turkey, things here would be even worse,” said one of them, who asked that his name be withheld for fear of retribution.
Things are as chaotic as they are desperate in Jinderes, which locals fear will mean they do not get the help they need. “International groups must come in and distribute the aid,” said Dima Aboush, sheltering near her crumpled building. “Otherwise, everyone here will fight each other to the death for scraps.”
Another unnamed fighter said: “What do you expect after 12 years without a state? We’ve been here left to rot alongside the bodies of the dead.”