After fleeing barrel bombs, the long wait for UN aid begins

The Syrian regime is in the business of inflicting suffering on civilians; their cooperation is valuable to aid access but when there’s no cooperation at all, then UN agencies have to take matters in their own hands.

Ahmad Khalil
22 May 2014

Fleeing barrel bombs raining down from the skies in Aleppo, Syrian families make long, dangerous treks toward towns near the Turkish border. They cluster in camps and schools with other families, leaving all their possessions behind, and then the wait begins.

As a Syrian videographer, it’s my job to document their journeys and I’m often a quiet witness to their struggles. I don’t make any promises to the people I meet, but I try and get them help at the next stop on my destination. In my travels in and out of Syria through the Turkish borders, I’ve spent time with these families, seeing with my own eyes the extent to which people need help. Food, clean water and medicine are all missing. The UN is just on the other side of the Turkish border, but so far they have not sent their aid trucks in to help.

They are waiting for the Assad regime’s permission to do that - and that permission could never come. Many of the families have given up on the UN. But now, with international lawyers and governments saying that they don’t have to wait, there’s hope that UN agency heads could cross borders or give the aid to organisations that can. They must act. The same regime dropping barrel bombs on homes in Aleppo cannot be allowed, by the UN, to control whether the fleeing families are offered medicine and food.

I’ve seen how the wait becomes a way of life. At first people arrive thinking that with the Turkish border so close, at least the bare essentials will be available. Only those with enough money will be able to travel to the other side to test their luck there. For the others, the reality sinks in. Aid is not abundant. Some organisations deliver what they can, but to my knowledge the UN delivers nothing.

father and son in Kilis, Turkey_0.jpg

Father and son, both affected by the conflict, leaving the Syrian border at Kilis, Turkey. Lee Harper/Demotix. Some rights reserved. 

Families start surviving on one meal a day and then the day-to-day worries become eclipsed by giant concerns. A long, hot summer is just around the corner. And with it, silent killers like polio, a disease that cripples infants, are at their peak risk. There’s no way of telling if all the children are vaccinated - many are probably not. With poor sanitation, mothers watch their children get diseases like scabies, powerless to help.

The elderly and people suffering from chronic diseases like diabetes or kidney failure live one day at a time. The wait bears even more agony for them. Families have pleaded, traveled, put their lives at risk for doses of insulin for the diabetic, blood pressure medication and inhalers for asthmatic kids. A lot of that struggle could end if UN aid crossed borders and entered the camps.

As a Syrian, I believe the UN’s strategy as a whole in dealing with the regime is mistaken and dangerous. The regime is in the business of inflicting suffering on civilians; their cooperation is valuable to aid access but when there’s no cooperation at all, then the UN agencies have to take matters in their own hands. Otherwise they risk becoming pawns in the dictatorship’s deliberate starvation strategy.

One regime official said it very clearly: they are adopting a ‘submit or starve’ policy. So they are directing almost all UN World Food Programme aid to regime-held areas - places that have already ‘submitted’. People in opposition-held territories are growing desperate and are now crossing into regime territories to get aid. They’re not always welcome. In Aleppo, snipers were waiting for residents who decided to make a run for food to the government-held side. Civilians trying to get to the other side were shot at and killed.

If the UN cooperates with the Assad regime to protect its ability to deliver, they have to remember that a strategy of appeasement is dangerous. In a recent UN report, embarrassing stories of approvals for aid delivery being revoked show just how little the regime takes the UN seriously. In my experience, word usually travels to locals about an upcoming convoy. I hope it didn’t in these cases. I've seen the crestfallen look on mothers’ faces when they realise the food baskets aren't coming.

But the UN has an opportunity to avoid that now. Thousands of families are waiting near the borders. UN aid can reach them. It’s time for the agencies to deliver.

Join the campaign calling on UN agencies to cross borders and deliver aid into Syria at The Syria Campaign.

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