BAB AL-HAWA, Syria (AP) — A small convoy crossed from Turkey into Syria’s rebel-held northwest Thursday with desperately needed medicines, blankets, tents and UN shelter kits, the first aid to reach the enclave, three days after the devastating earthquake killed thousands.
Before the convoy of six trucks, the only cargo coming across the Bab al-Hawa crossing on the Turkey-Syria border was a steady stream of bodies of earthquake victims — Syrian refugees who had fled the war in their country and settled in Turkey but perished in Monday’s 7.8 magnitude earthquake. Tearful survivors carried the remains of their loved ones wrapped in sheets, while others waited on the Syrian side to receive them.
Even before the earthquake wreaked havoc on both sides of the border — the death toll on Thursday surpassed 19,000 — the Syrian enclave of 4.6 million people was plagued by extreme misery, with many living in displacement camps and relying on humanitarian aid to survive.
Under an agreement at the UN Security Council, Bab al-Hawa is the only crossing the United Nations is allowed to use to deliver aid from Turkey to the enclave. But the chaos in the aftermath of the earthquake, damaged roads and piles of debris around the crossing prevented the UN from delivering aid.
Smaller aid groups have reportedly brought in some aid across other border crossings, but UN officials have been reluctant to break protocol.
Cross-border aid is politically charged, with the Syrian government and top ally Russia pushing for deliveries to the enclave from Damascus, the Syrian capital, rather than Turkey. Damascus officials insist they are ready to distribute aid everywhere in Syria but critics say President Bashar Assad’s government has a history of blocking or misdirecting aid intended for rebel-controlled areas.
“Assad has a long history of politicizing aid, diverting it to his supporters, or selling it at the black market,” said Karam Shaar, a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute.
Local rescue crews said aid delays may have cost more lives. Lack of heavy machinery and other equipment forced rescuers to clear the rubble with whatever they had — including their bare hands.
“After 50 hours of work, we pulled out a man and a little girl alive,” Abada Zikri, a first responder with the White Helmets, described one such rescue in Harem, a town of about 20,000 people in Syria’s Idlib province.
The White Helmets lost at least four volunteers in the earthquake, which also killed two Syrian employees with the International Rescue Committee and several people from the area who worked with the UN on aid deliveries.
While Thursday’s convoy was a delivery delayed from before the earthquake, the UN said more convoys with earthquake-response aid would follow.
“Today is just the beginning of it,” Sanjana Quazi, who runs the Turkey office of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told the Associated Press on the Turkish side of the border.
Some have criticized the UN for not taking exceptional measures to deliver aid after the earthquake. Shaar said the world organization should have broken protocol and used other crossings into Syria or provided airdrops.
In Damascus, the parliament on Thursday called for the immediate lifting of Western-led sanctions on Syria, after the Syrian Red Crescent earlier this week urged the same amid fuel shortages and insufficient equipment.
Monday’s quake also damaged the Afrin Dam, often locally called the Maydanki Dam, in northern Syria. The dam’s concrete cracked open on Thursday, and flooded the northwestern village of Tlool in the Salqin region, in the rebel enclave, partially submerging the buildings that withstood the earthquake.
Residents in the area scrambled to collect whatever personal belongings they could find and loaded them into trucks. The flooding further compounded the woes of the displaced Syrians.
The earthquake’s death toll rose Thursday across Syria’s front lines, with more than 1,900 killed in the rebel-held enclave and over 1,200 on the government side. Assad’s adviser Bouthaina Shaaban told London’s Sky News that Syria is willing to receive assistance from any country in the world, except Israel, which has offered help to both Turkey and Syria.
The United States and the European Union have slammed Damascus’ demand for the lifting of sanctions, saying the measures affect Assad’s government and do not include humanitarian aid.
But several Syrians living abroad said in social media posts that online fundraising platforms have blocked their efforts to wire money to Syria due to the sanctions.
Several planes from Assad’s key allies Iran and Russia, as well as a handful of Arab countries — the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Iraq — have airlifted aid to Damascus and Aleppo, two major Syrian airports.
Chehayeb reported from Beirut, and Abduelgasim from Cilvegozu, Turkey. Associated Press reporters Bassem Mroue in Beirut. Ghaith Alsayed in Idlib, Syria, and Omar Albam in Bab al-Hawa, Syria, contributed to this report.