This week, we focus on the sad news of the earthquake that struck Türkiye and Syria, leaving approximately 22,000 people dead so far, thousands of others injured and everyone desperate for humanitarian aid.
You are reading This Week @UN, summarizing the most pressing issues before the organization. The information is gathered from UN press briefings, PassBlue reporting and other sources. This week, we look at serious challenges to stability in Mali, and the Russian vs. Ukraine jaw wars in the UN Security Council.
This weekend, don’t shy away from our latest quiz, on Africa, the African diaspora and the UN.
Stillbirth, trapped kids, other child casualties from the Türkiye-Syria quake Children have suffered some of the worst casualties from what is being described as the most powerful earthquake to hit the two countries in almost 100 years. Videos of children in distress continue to emerge from the 7.7 magnitude quake that rocked Kahramanmaras and the region on Feb. 6 as rescuers work round the clock to help survivors. In one video that has attracted more than 128,000 views on Twitter, a newborn was carried from the scene. “This baby was born while his mother was under the rubble of the earthquake in Aleppo, Syria and she died shortly after he was born. The tragic situation my heart breaks for all involved” captioned the Twitter user who uploaded the video. In another video, a young girl begged to become a slave if the rescuers got her and her sister out of the large bricks under which they were trapped. “This video broke my heart,” said Zuher Almosa, a Twitter user who said he was a journalist. “The little girl says to the rescuer when he reaches her: get me out from under this wreckage, sir; me and my sister and I will become your slave.” Almosa posted another video of a toddler with a bloodied eye and a bandage wrapped around his wrist, saying that his parents died in the quake. “His condition is no different from that of many children just like him, but we have not yet been able to reach them or photograph their suffering. Being a journalist means that you are always at risk of having your heart broken in a sad way,” Almosa tweeted. Nina Ansary, director of the World Affairs Councils of America, tweeted the same video, corroborating Almosa’s tweet. Adelheid Marschang, a WHO senior emergency officer, said about 1.4 million children were likely to be affected by the disaster. In Adana, a major city in southern Türkiye, a Twitter user named Gadhwara posted a rescuer promising to get candy for a boy trapped under huge debris. “Don’t sleep, talk to us, and I will buy you chocolate,” the rescuer said to him. A Unicef spokesperson, James Elder, said in a statement that the quake “came at the worst possible time for vulnerable children and families in the affected areas.” Elder added that Unicef was working on helping children and families gain access to safe drinking water and sanitation services to help prevent illness in the early post-earthquake days. As to child protection, he explained that the organization would work on identifying separated and unaccompanied children and aim to reunite them with their families and provide “psychological first aid.”
“Education — schools in Turkey and parts of Syria — have now been closed for the next week, and many temporarily house the affected and displaced children and families,” the statement noted, adding that there were few medical supplies and trauma kits in Damascus, Syria, and that the organization was seeking to fill immediate gaps for supplies from warehouses in Lebanon and Jordan. The UN Population Fund said that thousands of buildings, including UNFPA-supported maternity facilities, youth centers and “women’s and girls’ safe spaces” have collapsed or been severely damaged. Nevertheless, the entity has started offering reproductive health services to survivors through standing delivery points in Türkiye. Unesco’s Director-General Audrey Azoulay said in a statement: “In Syria, UNESCO is particularly concerned about the situation in the Ancient city of Aleppo, which is on the List of World Heritage in Danger. Significant damage has been noted in the citadel. The western tower of the old city wall has collapsed and several buildings in the souks have been weakened.” Unesco is mobilizing its experts and partners to create an inventory of the damage. The World Food Program has launched an emergency response to assist the most vulnerable families affected by the quake. The UN spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric, during his daily briefing session on Feb. 7 admitted that the international humanitarian community has been stretched by the demanding situation in Afghanistan and the war in Ukraine, but “we’re going to stretch ourselves some more” in the quake disaster. On Feb. 9, the first convoy of UN aid entered from Türkiye into northwest Syria, a rebel stronghold, through the Bab al-Hawa crossing. “That was a convoy made up mostly from the International Organization for Migration (IOM),” Dujarric added. The aid consisted of blankets, mattresses, tents and shelter material as well as solar lamps. The UN humanitarian relief chief, Martin Griffiths, is in Ankara and will travel over the weekend to the damaged regions. The ambassadors in the Security Council, Brazil and Switzerland, who are responsible for overseeing the UN mandate of the cross-border aid channel from Bab al-Hawa, told reporters on Feb. 10 that the Council would ask Griffiths to provide an estimate of what help was necessary and how it should be delivered. Meanwhile, a deal between Syrian opposition groups and Türkiye reopened Bab Al Salameh and Bab Al Rai border crossings. (These cannot apparently be used by the UN until Council authorization; the first one has been closed since 2020.) A second UN aid convoy used the Bab al-Hawa crossing into Syria on Feb. 10, although the White Helmets, the Syrian civil defense group, said it was “disappointed” that the aid was not intended for its search and rescue operations. The Turkish mission to the UN tweeted a bulletin on how people can donate to relief efforts. — DAMILOLA BANJO
Monday Feb. 6
• Malta Wants to Focus on Rising Sea Levels, but Russia’s War Will Dominate the Month: The tiny Mediterranean island of Malta takes charge of the rotating UN Security Council presidency for February after becoming an elected member for the first time in 39 years. PassBlue’s Damilola Banjo sat with the permanent representative to the UN, Vanessa Frazier, to discuss Malta’s focus for the month, set to be dominated by the Russian-Ukrainian war entering its second year on Feb. 24.
• Spokesperson’s briefing: UN Secretary General, António Guterres expressed his deepest condolences to the people of Türkiye and Syria after the earthquake. He urged the international community to help families hit by the disaster, many of whom were already in dire need of humanitarian aid in areas, such as northwest Syria, where access is complicated because it is not controlled by the government. A head count of UN staff in affected areas has shown no casualties yet.
Tuesday Feb. 7
• PassBlue’s latest podcast episode features a live interview with Malta’s ambassador, Vanessa Frazier, on her country’s leading the Security Council for February, whose work is already in full swing, focusing on Russia’s war on Ukraine as well as rising sea levels across the world. Damilola Banjo and Kelechukwu, producers of the episode, based in Lagos, also asked Frazier about another controversial topic: migrants crossing the Mediterranean and Malta’s search and rescue operations.
• Spokesperson’s briefing: The transitional government of Mali has declared the director of the Human Rights Division of the UN peacekeeping mission (Minusma) and representative of the UN high commissioner for human rights as persona non grata. This is amid the growing political tensions in the country. (See our Feb. 9 story for more details on Mali.)
Wednesday Feb. 8
• Spokesperson’s briefing: The founding member of Pink Floyd, Rogers Waters, was a speaker at a Security Council meeting, led by Russia. The session, about Western weapons flows to Ukraine, was diverted at first by Waters, who has been called a “Putin apologist,” saying that the Russian invasion not “unprovoked.” He prefaced that remark by declaring that the invasion was “illegal” but was prompted by what he called NATO expansion in the region, essentially leaving President Putin with no choice but to attack his neighbor. Ukrainian Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya, in his response, said Waters’s remarks were an attempt to “whitewash” the invasion. “This pop star can easily ignore the alleged episodes of war crimes and crimes against humanity, he can totally ignore the crime of aggression, . . . . ” He advised him to focus on his music instead of lecturing the Security Council “on how to do its job!” (PassBlue got the scoop on Waters’s invitation to speak in the Council on Feb. 7.)
Thursday, Feb. 9
• With Russia at Its Side, Mali’s Military Government Marches Toward Renewing War in the North: In an exclusive, Joe Penney reports that the Malian military government, boosted by a closer alliance with Moscow and citizens’ support for Mali’s nationalist policies, is preparing for a risky renewed war against rebels and jihadists in the north of the country, threatening the French-led peace efforts of the last decade.
• Spokesperson’s briefing: Just south of Mali, in Burkina Faso, armed men attacked a vehicle carrying a four-member team of Doctors Without Borders (the organization also known as Médecins san Frontières), in the northwest, a relatively calm region, killing two people while the other two escaped. The two killed were staffers from Burkina, and the organization has suspended its work in the area. The UN resident and humanitarian coordinator ad interim in the country, Abdouraouf Gnon-Konde, condemned the murders and called them not only a violation of international humanitarian law but also “an attack on the rights and well-being of the children, women, and men who depend on humanitarian aid to survive.”
Friday, Feb. 10
• Spokesperson’s briefing: “In view of today’s latest large-scale missile and drone attack against Ukrainian cities,” Guterres reiterates that attacks against critical civilian infrastructure “are unacceptable and must cease immediately.” In Kharkiv in the northeast, some 150,000 households and businesses have no electricity, according to local officials, Dujarric said. Electricity and heating were also disrupted in Zaporizhzhia in the southeast. The UN sent another interagency convoy with humanitarian aid to Ocheretyne, a village in the Donetsk region, which is close to the front line. About 3,600 people, including about 200 children, have stayed in the village, despite having no gas supplies since February 2022.
• “Six Transformational Shifts in Global Governance,” remarks by the co-chairs of the UN high-level advisory board on effective multilateralism, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, ex-president of Liberia, and Stefan Lofven, ex-prime minister of Sweden, who will update UN member states on Feb. 14 regarding the Summit for the Future in 2024.
• Mark Malloch-Brown interviewed in a podcast episode on the Ukraine war and challenges to open societies
• Exit interviews with recent UN Security Council members: India, Ireland, Kenya, Mexico, Norway, led by the World Federation of United Nations Association with civil society
• The Geneva-based Center for Humanitarian Dialogue brokered the UN-Turkish agreement for the transit of Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea. Its director speaks to the Swiss paper Le Temps about the project, known as the Black Sea Grain Initiative
Damilola Banjo is a reporter for PassBlue. She has a master’s of science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in communications and language arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She has worked as a producer for NPR’s WAFE station in Charlotte, N.C.; for the BBC as an investigative journalist; and as a staff investigative reporter for Sahara Reporters Media.