A Cork priest who gave a hard-hitting eye-witness report on the death and destruction from inside earthquake hit Syria, today called for “cash” donations to help people worst hit by the disaster.
Fr Tony O’Riordan, who is leading the Jesuits response to the crisis in Aleppo, described seeing “a chilling image of a large articulated truck with bodies in white body bags”.
“A heartbroken family were there, seeking to track a loved one, such sense and stories are common here.”
Visiting one of 126 emergency shelters that have been erected in Aleppo, O’Riordan said he spoke to a man “who for over 12 hours was talking to his brother and family members who were trapped” in the rubble, but, “unfortunately that family perished”.
“Listening to survivors, it is hard to take in the level of terror they have lived through during the earthquake, they are in deep shock and their sense of safety and security has collapsed along with many of the buildings.”
Despite the crisis, “healing” is already taking place within the “safe zones” where psychological counselling is being offered to the loved one’s of the dead and injured, and paid for out of cash donations sent to the Jesuit earthquake appeal fund.
“We have rolled this out to about 700 people already, and they are reporting significant improvement in their sense of well-being as a result - it is not a high-cost intervention, but it is time-consuming, so cash is the best way to help,” said Fr O’Riordan.
Aside from the obvious dangers of further potential tremors and unsafe buildings, the harsh “sub-zero” winter temperatures and electricity blackouts are exacerbating the crisis, said Fr O’Riordan.
As a country director of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), he is also tasked with overseeing a team of 300 providing health, education, protection and peace building services to people caught up in the Syrian civil war.
“I think the greatest fear for me is that at nighttime I might get frostbite or discomfort because of the cold,” he offered.
“It’s sub-zero, and I’m sleeping in a room that doesn't have any heating but at least I have a bed and blankets. It was minus 4 degrees Celsius last night, maybe a hot water bottle would help, but there isn’t any electricity to heat the water.”
“It is heartbreaking but so encouraging to see Syrian people - who have been pounded by war, hunger, crippling poverty, and now hit by this - still standing with each other and doing what they can.”
O’Riordan is no stranger to challenging environments, having previously highlighted the activities of murderous drug gangs in Moyross, Limerick, where he served for six years as parish priest, or deprivation in Ballymun, Dublin, where he began his ministry.
He has also survived an attack by aa 2,000-strong mob on a remote refugee camp in South Sudan, in 2018.
He feels “lucky” that, when the earthquake hit Aleppo, he was 400km outside the city - although the tremor that reached him in his bed at 4.30am “woke” him and felt like “a train” slowly shuddering towards him.
“It was a very different experience for people closer to the epicenter, they actually thought they were going to die because of the shaking, the noise of the ground moving, glass breaking, buildings creaking and rubble falling.”
“It was only a few seconds, but it was the most terrifying few seconds of people’s lives.”