Syrian aid smugglers haggle for flour in Turkey

November 23, 2012 8:50 am


Sacks of wheat burn in Syria near the country’s border with Turkey following an air strike/AFP
Turkey, Nov 23 – Abu Omar and Ammar negotiate the cost of two tonnes of flour, destined as aid for their countrymen in Syria’s Jabal Akrad, with a hard-bargaining Turkish merchant in the border town of Yayladagi.

Together with trained doctor Rami, who is in charge of distribution on the Syrian side, the two men have set up a system for delivering humanitarian aid from Turkey to the mountainous region in the northwest of the war-torn country.

2 And it is aid much needed.

“In times of peace, before the beginning of the Syrian revolution, this area of the countryside of Latakia was self-sufficient… but for one year now they’ve had no income,” says Rami.

Since the conflict flared up 20 months ago, residents of the now rebel-held Jabal Akrad area of Latakia province have been unable to harvest their crops due to fighting and raids by regime helicopter gunships, he says.

Abu Omar and Ammar, both forced to flee Syria because of the war, remain on the Turkish side of the border, commissioning foreign aid and buying supplies to be smuggled across.

They have no deal with the Turkish authorities to carry out their operation, but an understanding with the Turkish Red Crescent sees that organisation provide most of the necessary logistics and transport.

“Sometimes (supplies) enter with the Red Crescent, legally, but sometimes we can’t cross because of the rain on the roads (in the rocky, hilly region) and have to take other more difficult routes,” Abu Omar says.

Flour makes up much of the aid delivered, which includes medical supplies, cleaning products and even dummies and nappies for children.

The flour is used to make bread. “The people need bread to live,” explains Ammar.

And soon, “blankets and warm clothes” will be also be needed to survive the cold mountain winter, says Abu Omar.

But the aid reaching the beleaguered population in Jabal Akrad, despite donors that include Australian, Czech, Saudi, Turkish and Syrian organisations, is insufficient.

“What we receive represents only 25 percent of Jabal Akrad’s needs,” says Rami.

And bargaining for flour can be a painstaking process given the current paucity of funds.

“With the limited amount that we have, we try to get the best deals that we can when it comes to flour. So we have to argue and negotiate, and put pressure on the trader,” Ammar laments.

Today, two tonnes of flour cost the men more than $1,000, a high price.

They try to buy cheaply from big cities like Gaziantep, but given logistical obstacles in their semi-illegal trade, are sometimes forced to use local suppliers in Yayladagi, which lies less than three kilometres (two miles) from the border.

— Sixty-man mission —

The three men are not alone in their mission. A network of more than 60 volunteers, organised through Rami on the Syrian side, ensures the aid is delivered.

Abu Omar and Ammar buy the supplies in Turkey which are taken across the border, where Rami distributes them to a total of 25,000 people in 56 different villages, based on needs cited by a local representative from each place.

Yayladagi itself houses around 400 Syrian families, a small sample of the more than 120,000 Syrian refugees who are estimated to have fled the war for Turkey.

Abu Omar and Ammar, both in their 40s, fled their homeland seven months ago because of the sectarian strife in the Alawite-dominated region, the minority Shiite Muslim sect to which President Bashar al-Assad’s entourage belongs.

Abu Omar, a former physics teacher, does not hide his animosity towards the Alawites.

“The Sunnis started the revolution because all the power and money lay in the hands of two million people,” he says.

Former lawyer Ammar, whose office was destroyed by shelling in his hometown in Latakia province, left with his wife and five children.

Rami studied medicine at Aleppo University and spent almost a decade abroad in Saudi Arabia and Britain before returning to Syria. He decided to stay when the revolution began.

“It was everybody’s dream that a revolution would start, so we stayed to help as much as possible,” says the doctor who works in the region’s only field hospital.

The three men agreed to talk to journalists and to be identified because they no longer fear for the safety of their families, who have escaped to Turkey.

They will continue to deliver humanitarian aid to a population that desperately needs it.

And every few minutes, one of them receives a call from inside Syria, begging for more help.


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