A light winter mist hung over the Bab Al Hawa border crossing. At the entrance on the Turkish side, trucks lined up to take sacks of flour and piles of foam mattresses into Syria. Across the tarmac, beyond the duty free mall, a trickle of weary-looking refugees were queuing to enter Turkey.
Behind them there was an iron gate, and past that, no-man’s land. The next village, its mosque just visible in the valley beyond, was in Syria.
We were spending the morning with IHH, the Turkish aid group responsible for much of the aid that is going to Syria. They send about 15 trucks a day to the border, packed with basic foodstuffs, or blankets and heaters against the winter cold.
In no-man’s land, the stuff is transferred to Syrian trucks and cars, and onwards it goes. One can only hope it reaches who it’s meant for: Syrians stranded in the north who have lost their houses, their family members, and in many cases, their hope.
That population is desperate indeed. Thousands have sought refuge in the “liberated” areas, where waves of mass arrest by government forces can’t reach them. But the regime still has control of the air. It is systematically bombing people as they queue for bread. One such attack, two days before Christmas, killed at least 60 people.
Again and again, refugees told us the same thing: We have no flour. We have no diesel. We want to make bread, but even if we get enough flour, we can’t light the ovens. People are on the edge of starving.
But besides these trucks, there is almost no aid going in. The World Food Programme, which in similar situations elsewhere might be sending hundreds of trucks a week across here, is entirely absent. In Reyhanli, I didn’t see a single car belonging to an international organization.
The UN reckons around 2.5 million people are now internally displaced in Syria. From the people we spoke to, that seems low, to say the least. Many people have fled two or three times to escape the fighting. One Turkish aid worker reckons as many as 10 million, people are displaced inside Syria – that’s almost half the population.
Local councils and coordination groups across the border send IHH desperate, hand-written pleas for “any aid you can provide,” calling for God’s blessings on anybody who would help them. Ahmed, a guy in his twenties, from Aleppo, sits in a little office down the side of IHH’s little headquarters building in Reyhanli and fields requests. He receives a stream of phone calls, desperate visitors and these notes, which he clips into a folder and passes up to his manager.
IHH doesn’t just deal with aid into Syria, they also help run the 14 refugee camps that the government has set up to house refugees here. And they give basic food parcels to people living in rented apartments here. We met a few of those. One said he had been here for three weeks and received no help, no food, nothing. He didn’t have enough money for food – the neighbours were kind enough to provide a few basic meals. Many Syrians who have come to Turkey are giving up and going home – back to a warzone. That’s desperation.
IHH’s staff were friendly, and seemed dedicated, but they need serious help. A humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding a few miles down the road. These people – a third of them volunteers – work hard and do what they can, but Syria in 2013 is way out of their league.
The scene in Ahmed’s office encapsulated the current lack of humanitarian assistance to Syria. But it is another scene from those days that will stick in my head.
A family were crossing the border back into Syria. They were all squeezed into a car: women, men, children, bags and blankets. A little boy, maybe 8 years old, was looking out the back window. As the car headed towards no-man’s land, he caught my eye.
He had a sad little face, with those beautiful dark eyes most Arab children have. He kept my gaze as his family headed back to the war zone.