In Turkish border town, charity fields Syrians’ pleas for help

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 7, 2013 


A staffer for Turkish charity IHH puts a banner on a truck full of supplies for distribution across the border into Syria.


— Syrian towns and villages seeking to survive the extreme deprivations of daily life 22 months into their country’s political crisis are inundating a Turkish charity with requests to send flour, fuel, clothes and blankets across the border into their devastated land.

Arriving by Skype, telephone or email, and often hand-carried, the pleas show the level of despair in rebel-held areas where forces loyal to President Bashar Assad have been accused of deliberately bombing bakeries, hospitals and other civilian targets in retaliation for rebel advances.

The requests for help also arrive in person. “We need everything,” an envoy from the local council of Abu Kamal, a city of 350,000 on the border with Iraq, told a McClatchy reporter last week at the office of the IHH charity. “They sent us 50 tons of flour earlier, and also some mattresses and some blankets, but this is not what we need.”

The envoy, who identified himself by the nickname Abu Ibrahim, said government aircraft had destroyed four state-owned bakeries last summer, a tactic that’s become common in recent months, according to Human Rights Watch and municipal officials.

“We need flour,” Abu Ibrahim said. “Every day we need 10 tons of flour.” Like other Syrians in this story, he declined to give his real name to protect his security.

The heads of the local administration councils for 13 villages in the municipality of Hish in central Syria sent a signed petition, seeking “aid for the besieged people of Syria to meet the needs of displaced people, to compensate the victims of the regime’s war against the civilians as well as help for the families of the dead and the imprisoned, and treatment of the wounded.”

The petition named Abdullah Moussa Mansour, who hand-delivered it, as its representative and begged a divine blessing on any charity that would help.

Twenty to 25 such petitions arrive each day, said Ahmet Weis, a Syrian from Aleppo who acts as gatekeeper for the IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation, the Turkish charity that achieved fame – and notoriety – for sending the Mavi Marmara aid ship, which tried to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza in 2009.

He opened a binder with dozens of handwritten pleas. At the top was that of Walid Yusuf, representing the 17 villages of the Jebel Hashim district, near the city of Hama, which spoke of “desperate humanitarian need” and asked for help with “food items, and medical supplies, if it’s possible, and especially flour.”

The IHH director, Muhammed Ilkay Yorgancioglu, reads and assesses the petitions daily, and after taking into account the Syrian military’s bombing runs that day, decides who’ll receive IHH-funneled aid the next day.

Each morning at around 10, staff members depart the IHH’s modest villa behind an elementary school on the main street of the border town of Reyhanli and drive to a former cotton warehouse, where they marshal a convoy of trucks already packed with food, blankets, mattresses and sometimes tents. The convoy heads out of town to a meeting point beyond the border on the main road to Aleppo. There, the cargo is offloaded onto vehicles brought by Syrian aid organizations for further distribution. Between 20 and 30 truckloads cross in daily from this and other locations.

One surprising aspect of the cross-border aid program is that about half the money or goods for the transports is paid by private Turkish donors, with the rest coming from foreign donors. The U.N.’s World Food Program, which sends its aid in through the government-sanctioned Syrian Arab Red Crescent, is nowhere to be seen here, nor are other International aid groups.

Turkey is hosting 150,000 Syrian refugees in camps run under national auspices, rather than the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. U.S. aid experts say the camps are of a higher standard than U.N. facilities. Some 40,000 Syrians are waiting on the other side of the border until new camps are completed, and 50,000 are living in Reyhanli and other towns on the local economy, according to Turkish diplomatic officials.

“Everything you need for life is in short supply” in Syria, Yorgancioglu told McClatchy. “They need food, baby formula, water, medicines, blankets.” And ironically, each rebel advance brings more hardship for the population, he said. When ground forces lose territory, the government responds with aerial bombardment, in what U.S. officials have termed a “collective punishment.”

Based on the petitions that arrive daily at the IHH from liberated towns and villages, the charity estimates that rebels now control 70 percent of the country – some 14 million of the population of 23 million -- far more than the international community is geared to support. (Turkish and American officials use a slightly lower estimate for rebel control – 60 to 70 per cent).

U.S. aid officials, noting that American aid to displaced people in Syria flows through channels other than the IHH, said the international community at most was providing 30 percent of what Syrians needed.

Syria’s revolution, which began with peaceful demonstrations in March 2011 and turned violent after the government used lethal force, is far and away the most violent of the struggles of the Arab awakening. Opposition figures fear that the violence might go on for months to come, and massive destruction is on view just across the border.

Government bombings have devastated the town of Idlib, whose population of 100,000 has been swollen by some 200,000 internally displaced people, according to an official from a international aid agency, who asked not to be identified because he wasn’t authorized to speak to a reporter. Despair has driven many Syrians to abandon their homes even though they lack the means to live anywhere else.

Abu Tariq, 58, a farmer, showed up at the IHH office on Thursday, bringing with him a son, a daughter and his 47-year-old wife, who uses a wheelchair.

“We’ve been here 22 days. You’ve promised help. We’ve gotten nothing,” he said to the IHH’s Ahmet Weis. Living in a one-room unheated basement flat rented for $125 a month, they’ve had to rely on neighbors for their meals. Weis wrote out a voucher giving them five mattresses and a box of food.

The stress showed on the faces of Abu Tariq and his wife, whom he’d wheeled more than two miles across town to deliver his appeal in person. He said the family had abandoned their modest house in Idlib because of the bombing.

Abu Zeid, a 32-year-old tailor from Damascus, has had to move his family repeatedly to survive. They left the Syrian capital because of the waves of arrests and random bombings there, and went to a village in the countryside, where police came and began arresting people on suspicion of being anti-government. After two months they fled to Binnish, near Idlib, to a house his father had purchased years back.

“Two days later, they bombed the house,” he said, and after another bombing run last week, nothing is left of it.

Today Abu Zeid and 35 other men, women and children from six families occupy three unheated rooms in a run-down part of Reyhanli – which they rent for $225 a month. He’s nearly broke, and the only income he and his brother have is from working for the IHH every third day.

“The help from IHH is not enough,” he said. “On the days we work, there is food. On other days there is no food.”

Raymond is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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