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A rare glimpse of the earthquake aftermath in rebel-held Syria

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

We're going to get a rare glimpse into the earthquake zone in Syria, where it has been incredibly difficult to get aid in and news out. The earthquake that ravaged the border areas between Turkey and Syria has killed at least 23,000 people, left tens of thousands injured and even more without homes. But while rescue crews and donors have access to Turkey, the politics of Syria's civil war have limited supplies there. NPR's Ruth Sherlock got access across the border today, and she found people desperate for help. She joins us now from back over the border in Turkey. And, Ruth, first of all, for a number of years now, Turkey has only rarely allowed journalists to cross the border and to go into northern Syria. So why did Turkey decide to give you access?

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: I think the change of heart here is that the Turks - you know, they want to show the world just how awful the situation is over there after the earthquake and encourage foreign countries to send aid. Turkish officials took us inside, and at the border we met Esref Akca, who oversees Turkish aid into one of the governorates of Syria that's been badly hit by this earthquake. He spoke through an interpreter.

ESREF AKCA: (Through interpreter) Turkey is in need of the most, you know, help from international organizations that we just can try to, you know, heal our wounds.

SHERLOCK: He's saying that, you know, Turkey needs time to heal its own wounds. And the main point here is that five days after this earthquake now, almost no international aid has reached northern Syria.

SUMMERS: Five days. I mean, why is that? Why is it so difficult for aid to reach this area?

SHERLOCK: It's partly context. This region is still controlled by militias that oppose the Syrian government. And even though there's millions of people living in this region now, aid groups say the Syrian regime has been trying to starve and deprive them for over a decade. Over the years, the United Nations has kept open one route for aid supplies from Turkey across the border, even though Syria and its allies like Russia and China oppose that. And even the ability to keep this one crossing open goes up for a vote at the U.N. Security Council every now and again. Some say the U.N. could act on its own, but that would open up a precedent for other countries for violations of their sovereignty. And the U.N. doesn't want to make that happen.

So look. It really comes down to this quite complicated geopolitics with people caught in the middle. What I can tell you about this situation is - after this earthquake is that the roads that the U.N. uses to bring supplies in across that one crossing into Syria are damaged. And they're not allowed to use the seven others from Turkey.

SUMMERS: You mentioned that people are the ones caught in the middle here. And it makes me wonder, as you were speaking to people there, what did they tell you that they need?

SHERLOCK: Well, we traveled to the town of Jindires. And there were some places still standing there, but there were also dozens of other buildings that are just turned to rubble. At one point, a woman, Kawsa Mohammed, approached us. And I asked her what happened to her house in the earthquake.

KAWSA MOHAMMED: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: She says it was destroyed and asks if we've brought any aid. I ask her what she needs.

MOHAMMED: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: She says things to keep them warm in the cold winter, medicines, everything. And a little boy just chimes in nearby, everything. The head of the local council there told me, you know, if the international community had sent aid, like better machinery for digging people out of the rubble, he thinks that many more people would be alive now. He thinks now that's too late. It's probably too late to rescue those still trapped. But there's no basics for the living. He says people are even starting to fight over just a single cup of drinking water.

SUMMERS: Oh, my gosh. This sounds horrific for the people there. As you looked around, how bad was the damage?

SHERLOCK: You know, the destruction is massive. Whole neighborhoods are devastated. And we're told so far 850 people have been found dead. We met Zachariah Tabah, who lost his father, wife and 2-year-old boy Abdul Hadi in the earthquake.

ZACHARIAH TABAH: (Through interpreter) The last night I put him in my arms and slept with him. In the morning, I found him on his bed, dead.

SHERLOCK: He looked really dazed. And he said, like so many of the people we met there, that he still can't believe what's happened.

SUMMERS: That's NPR's Ruth Sherlock talking about her trip into Syria's earthquake zone. Ruth, thank you for sharing these stories.

SHERLOCK: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.