Syria earthquake: First UN aid convoy crosses border after hundreds of bodies delivered
A United Nations aid convoy moved from Turkey to northwest Syria on Thursday for the first time since Monday’s earthquake, amid the struggle to get international aid to a beleaguered region to years of conflict and an acute humanitarian crisis.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) said the convoy, consisting of six trucks carrying shelter and non-food items (NFIs), passed through the Bab Al Hawa crossing – the only humanitarian aid corridor between Turkey and Syria.
“The UN cross-border aid operation was restored today. We are relieved to be able to reach the people of northwestern Syria at this pressing time. We hope this operation will continue as it is a humanitarian lifeline and the only scalable channel,” said Sanjana Quazi, Head of OCHA Türkiye.
Thursday’s delivery ends a three-day period in which no aid arrived at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing from Turkey to rebel-held areas in northern Syria – just 300 bodies, according to the administration that controls the only access point between the two countries.
“How are the roads okay for cars carrying bodies, but not for aid?” Mazen Alloush, the frustrated spokesman for Bab al-Hawa had asked CNN.
Immediately after the earthquake, the United Nations said roads leading to the crossing point were blocked, but as of Wednesday they were clear, raising questions as to why aid put so long to arrive.
A senior aid official told CNN earlier that efforts to help people in Syria’s quake-hit areas had been “incredibly difficult” as crossing entrances along the border had been destroyed in reason for the disaster.
“On top of that, in Syria it’s happening in the middle of a conflict zone,” said Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council.
The situation in Syria is radically different from that in Turkey, where 70 countries and 14 international organizations quickly offered rescue teams, donations and aid.
CNN captures the moment residents of Turkey are rescued from debris
Delivering urgent supplies to quake-hit areas of northern Syria has been complicated by a long civil war between opposition forces and the Syrian government, led by President Bashar al-Assad, who is accused of having killed his own people.
Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad has said any aid he receives must pass through the capital Damascus. “The Syrian state is ready to allow aid to enter all regions, provided it does not reach armed terrorist groups,” he said.
That leaves rebel-held areas dependent on aid groups, including the UN, which hopes to begin delivering aid to northern Syria on Thursday. Alloush said he was told to expect six aid trucks by noon, carrying sanitary items and “possibly food”.
Millions of people living in rebel-held areas of northern Syria were already suffering the effects of extreme poverty and a cholera epidemic when the earthquake struck. Now many are fending for themselves.
Abu Muhammad Sakhour, a former merchant, is volunteering as a medic in the rebel-held city of Idlib, dressing the wounds of earthquake victims and monitoring the wounded who have been discharged from overcrowded hospitals.
“The situation is catastrophic in every sense of the word,” he said. “We are now healing our own wounds.”
At the Bab al-Hawa border post, protesters hold signs asking why only bodies are allowed through. The bodies belong to Syrian refugees who sought refuge in Turkey and are now being sent back to be buried at home.
Muhammad Munther Atqi of the Association of Independent Doctors lives in his car with his family in Gaziantep, Turkey, but is in close contact with colleagues in Syria. He said hospitals have been overwhelmed with bodies and staff are waiting for families to come and identify them, so they can be taken away.
But survivors face their own challenges every day as water supplies dwindle and disease threatens to spread. Moutaz Adham, Oxfam’s country director for Syria, said residents were struggling to find food – even bread is hard to come by as many bakeries collapsed in the quake.
“Syrians don’t know where their next meal is coming from. When we talk about meals, it’s not about vegetables, it’s not about meat… it’s about plain bread,” he said.
There has been “no investment” in the isolated region for more than a decade, said Kieran Barnes, country director for Syria at the humanitarian organization Mercy Corps. Tens of thousands of people are living in temporary shelters without access to water, he said.
“We work in 98 camps to provide water, because there are no water networks. We deliver water directly to people,” he said.
Sherwan Qasem, spokesperson for Doctors Without Borders, said access to the area had been restricted by the cross-border mechanism, agreed by the UN Security Council resolution in 2014 to allow aid to cross four places on the Turkish-Syrian border.
However, since 2021, Russia and China have used their veto power to reduce the number of crossings from four to just one – Bab al-Hawa. In January, less than a month before the quake, the UNSC voted unanimously to keep it open, a vote reluctantly backed by China and Russia, whose ambassador said would allow the help to flock to a Syrian enclave “flooded with terrorists”.
Barnes of Mercy Corps said it was vital the passage remained open.
“We don’t need politics. We don’t need the current game. What we need is for the international community to focus on keeping the border crossing open,” Barnes added. “Because now we have passed the first phase of tracing people and are moving towards the humanitarian phase. We need to provide people with basic shelter, food and water.
Outside of rebel-held areas, aid is arriving in earthquake-hit government-controlled areas of Syria.
So far, several countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Iraq and Russia, have sent relief supplies to airports controlled by the regime. Other countries, including China, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Canada, have also pledged aid.
But the Syrian government says it needs more – and has called for the lifting of sanctions imposed on the country. A number of Western countries have imposed bans on trade with Syria, including arms, equipment, petrochemicals and luxury goods.
China, a key Syria ally, echoed Damascus’ call to lift sanctions, urging Washington to “put aside its geopolitical obsessions”.
Here’s why the earthquake in Turkey and Syria was so deadly
“The United States has been involved in the Syrian crisis for a long time,” Mao Ning, spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, said on Wednesday. “Frequent military interventions and harsh economic sanctions have caused massive civilian casualties in Syria and made it difficult for the population to obtain basic subsistence security.
But this call for help has sparked outrage from some al-Assad critics.
“He is using the disaster as a ticket to lift sanctions,” said Omar Abu Layla, executive director of Deir Ezzor 24, a research organization that provides information on Syria’s Deir al-Zour province. “If we want to help Syria, we can. Time is critical. We play with life and death.
Video: ‘Can’t Save Them’: Survivors Struggle After Earthquake
The United States, for its part, has ruled out changing its position on the regime.
“It would be quite ironic, even counterproductive, for us to reach out to a government that has brutalized its people for a dozen years now,” the Department of Health spokesman told reporters on Monday. US State, Ned Price.
“We have humanitarian partners on the ground who can provide the kind of assistance in the aftermath of these tragic earthquakes. This is a regime… which has never shown any inclination to put the welfare, well-being, interests of its people first.