Hannah Lucinda Smith
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on : Monday, 20 May, 2013
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The Politics of Aid in a War Zone

Aid workers feeding displaced Syrians must contend with red tape and criminal gangs to keep aid flowing

Internally displaced Syrian families spend their day at the Maiber al-Salam refugee camp along the Turkish border in the northern province of Aleppo on April 28, 2013 (AFP PHOTO / MIGUEL MEDINA)

Internally displaced Syrian families spend their day at the Maiber Al-Salam refugee camp along the Turkish border in the northern province of Aleppo on April 28, 2013. (AFP PHOTO / MIGUEL MEDINA)

Aleppo, Asharq Al-Awsat—Every day at 2 p.m., Raja joins the queue that snakes around the half-finished apartment blocks. Like all the others, she is clutching a small metal bowl that she will fill with food to take home to her family. On leaner days, this will be their only meal.

“We left our homes in what we were wearing,” says Raja, a mother of five who fled from her home in the Palestinian district of Aleppo two months ago. Yesterday, she received news that her house has been destroyed in an airstrike, so this is now the life that she must adjust to.

These apartment blocks were half-built and then abandoned when the fighting started in Aleppo, and now they have become home for hundreds of displaced families who bed down on the concrete floors and hang sheets up in the open spaces where windows should have been fitted. “Now that it’s warmer, it’s not so bad living here,” says Rawan, the charity worker who organizes the daily hand outs. “But in winter, the conditions were terrible.”

The UN estimates that there are now almost 7 million Syrians who, like Raja, depend on humanitarian assistance to survive. In Aleppo province alone, 1.25 million people have been forced from their homes and are living with friends, family, or in hastily set up refugee camps. A multitude of small NGOs, like the Jana Foundation—the organisation that provides food for Raja and her family—and larger organisations such as the World Food Program (WFP) are desperately trying to reach all the people in Syria who need their help.

Aleppo lies just a short distance from the border with Turkey, so getting food aid here should in theory be easy, but politics is getting in the way. Because Syria is still recognized as a sovereign state by the United Nations, all the organisations delivering aid inside the country need the government’s permission to cross over the land borders with their convoys. But for the past year, a large stretch of the Turkish–Syrian border has been controlled by brigades from the Free Syrian Army, and Bashar Al-Assad’s government is steadfastly refusing to allow aid agencies to cross any borders controlled by the opposition. “We have to work within international law, so in order to cross from Turkey into Syria with our aid convoys, we must get the permission of both the Turkish and Syrian governments, as well as the groups controlling the border posts,” explains the WFP’s spokesperson on Syria, Laure Chadraoui.

The alternative route that the convoys must take is both circuitous and dangerous. The WFP gets its aid supplies into Syria either via the regime-controlled port city of Tartous, or overland to Damascus from the Lebanese capital, Beirut. From there, it is taken by road to the rest of the country. “The northeast of the country is certainly the most challenging at the moment, in terms of getting aid to where it needs to be,” says Chadraoui. “The road from Damascus to Aleppo is extremely dangerous, and we have to pass through over fifty checkpoints, controlled both by the government and various opposition groups, to get there. It often takes over twenty hours to get to Aleppo from the capital.”

The kaleidoscopic and constantly shifting nature of the front line in Syria means that the organisation has to seize windows of opportunity when fighting dies down to move their convoys from one point to another. But there are other security concerns, too: Chadraoui says that around twenty of their trucks have been hijacked by criminal groups as they travel to deliver their aid. “When that happens we try to negotiate with the groups to get the trucks back. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t,” she says. Furthermore, the WFP’s aid warehouses in Damascus and Aleppo have both been shelled, although not necessarily in targeted attacks.

For smaller NGOs, who do not have the resources to travel via government areas, the logistics of delivering aid inside Syria are more problematic still. The head of one small charity based in southeastern Turkey explained how he is forced to run two operations—one in Turkey, which deals with the donations and logistics, and one inside Syria, which deals with distribution. “We can’t take anything over the border, so I have to allocate money to our people inside Syria, so that they can then use it to buy food within the country,” he says. “We have warehouses in Syria, but we have to keep their locations secret to prevent them being targeted by criminal groups.” He reveals that they, too, have had lorries hijacked within opposition-held areas.

In Aleppo, displaced people like Raja know little of the political battles that are currently being fought in an attempt to get more food aid to people like her, and more quickly. “We are currently sending aid to 2.5 million people in Syria,” says Laure Chadraoui, “and the number of people who need assistance is rising all the time. We are currently spending USD 19.5 million a week on our operation in Syria. But our current funding will only last until June; after that, we will have to appeal again to our government donors.”

Hannah Lucinda Smith

Hannah Lucinda Smith

Hannah Lucinda Smith is a freelance journalist who has worked on a number of high-profile investigations for Channel 4 and the BBC. Her recent work has seen her gain access to inner city gangs, sex workers and the British far right. She has traveled to Kosovo, Syria and Brazil to report on human rights issues. She lives in London.

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