Skip to main content
European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations

12 years of war in Syria: suffering without end, aid across borders

Conflict, crisis, COVID-19, cholera, and, as if things couldn’t possibly get worse, the strongest earthquake in a lifetime – there seems to be no end to the suffering of people in northern Syria.

In this region fractured by 12 years of war, people on both sides of the divide have seen their lives once again devastated and hopes crushed. The EU is by their side, providing impartial humanitarian assistance to Syrians through trusted partners.

People queuing outside in front of a tent.
© Omar Khattab/People in Need

“It felt like doomsday. At first, we thought it was an airstrike. Although we lived in a tent, we were very scared. We never experienced such a thing before,” says Ahmed.

He is in the non-government controlled part of Aleppo governorate, in northwest Syria, where he and other 2.7 million others still live uprooted by conflict.

The day after the earthquake, we left the camp because of flooding. The dam was damaged; it cracked. In the past 12 years, this displacement has been the hardest,” he explains.

In the last non-government controlled stretch of Syria bordering Türkiye, humanitarian organisations have already struggled to deliver aid in non-disaster times.

In an area where conflict has been ongoing for years, UN agencies have relied on just 1 border crossing to bring in aid. Due to the earthquake, this exact crossing was closed for days due to damaged roads and major disruptions.

Keep politics out

In a complex and already hard-to-access region, it was clear that reaching the earthquake’s affected areas would be extremely hard. Nevertheless, many EU humanitarian partners already on the ground scrambled nonetheless to start an emergency response.

The other side

Suffering doesn’t stop at borders or frontlines. On the other side of the divide, not far from where Ahmed lives, lies Aleppo.

A skyscape as scarred as its population by years of siege and ferocious shelling that lay ruin to half the city. The earthquakes brought new devastation to both intact and already damaged buildings.

Some 10% of the 2 million inhabitants took refuge in more than 200 mosques and schools. In these collective shelters, with several families in a room, many are waiting for their building to be declared safe to return home.

Photo left: a couple in front of damaged buildings. Photo right: an aid worker comforting 2 people.
© Photo 1: European Union, 2023 (photographer: Anouk Delafortrie) - Photo 2: ICDA NGO/Ange Hussein

Others, like 66-year-old Sanaa, have no option but to stay since her apartment is now uninhabitable. She guides us outside the boisterous school corridors to meet her 73-year-old husband, Samir.

“There are 12 families in ‘our’ classroom, so we sleep in the car,” Sanaa says, standing in front of a small truck covered with plastic sheeting.

“We’ve had to leave our home 3 times in the past 12 years. We are respectable people. We don’t want to be beggars but have nowhere to go,” she says, no longer holding back tears.

“We need food. Our clothes are torn. We only have a few things, and they are all gone,” Sanaa.

When Samir retired in 2010, they never imagined they would have to survive the war, bombardments, poverty, and an earthquake. His monthly retirement pension is the equivalent of €13 in today’s struggling economy, and the vehicle is their last possession.

Photo left: A doctor - standing up - taking blood pressure of a seated woman. Photo right: 2 bags of goods on a table in the background a teacher in front of a group of people.
© Photo 1: European Union, 2023 (photographer: Anouk Delafortrie) - Photo 2: DRC

EU humanitarian partners are helping people in the shelters with health care, counselling, hygiene, and other essential aid.

However, the situation in the shelter isn’t sustainable. It is overcrowded and lacks of proper sanitation, making disease outbreaks more likely with every passing day.

Before the earthquake, humanitarian needs were already at an all-time high in Syria. With crisis after crisis shaking people to their core, pushing them to the edge of survival, donor fatigue is not an option.

In addition to EU humanitarian aid, the EU Civil Protection Mechanism was activated 2 days after the quake. Via Türkiye and Lebanon, 16 European countries provided aid to opposition-held and government-controlled areas. The EU also sent relief from its humanitarian stockpiles to both sides.

As one of the major donors for aid to Syrians, the EU has maintained a stable level of humanitarian funding in recent years. Despite many challenges, the EU has been providing impartial humanitarian aid to people in Syria since 2011, on all sides of the conflict.

Story by Anouk Delafortrie, Regional Information Officer for Middle East and Nothern Africa, EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations.
Publication date: 15/03/2023