ATME, Syria — Finally they’ve arrived — nearly 2,000 kerosene heaters for thousands of displaced Syrians facing a bitingly cold winter in camps in rebel-controlled areas in the northwest of the country.
Trucks loaded with precious gas stoves came from Iraq via Turkey, to be distributed in four camps along the Turkish border by a Western NGO whose name its employees refrain from using for “political and security” reasons.
It was an unusually large consignment of aid coming from international groups which normally deliver in bits and pieces.
But many of the displaced feel it’s a case of too little, too late.
“Why don’t you help us?” asked a refugee in a camp in Atme where about 15,000 people have taken shelter under olive trees, a few metres from barbed wire that lines the Turkish border.
“We are cold, we have nothing,” said a weary mother living with her family at the camp.
But Ziad Aarur, a former teacher in charge of the camp, said: “The aid has arrived even if it is far from what we need.”
As well as Syrian associations and Islamic groups, large Western NGOs are looking at Syria “but they are too slow in keeping their promises”, said Aarur with frustration in his voice.
“Their representatives visited the camp, took pictures and spent hours here before returning to Turkey. Sometimes they give the impression that they are tourists.”
The United Nations has also been slow to arrive, only distributing some tents in the nearby Al Karame Camp, Aarur said. “But most of the aid continues to go to the regime of [President] Bashar Assad.”
Such accusations have already made by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which has operated for nine months in northwest Syria, that humanitarian aid “suffers from a serious imbalance” in favour of regime-controlled areas.
The situation is difficult because it is tough to manage distribution, particularly from neighbouring Turkey, as NGOs are forced to work on a semi-clandestine basis inside Syria.
At least six Western NGOs are working in northwestern Syria, trying to meet the needs of 20,000 displaced refugees in four camps that are relatively safe, out of range of the regime’s guns and artillery.
These NGOs are based in Turkey’s Hatay province and tolerated by Ankara, with the authorities turning a blind eye to their illegal toing and froing from “free” Syria.
Foreign NGO workers take on Syrian false names, which fools no one, as in Qah Camp where two visibly Western NGO employees were at pains to hide their nationality from AFP journalists.
“We are working for a Syrian organisation,” an Italian female aid worker in her 30s said, trying to pronounce correctly from behind her veil the name of the local NGO.
“The big NGOs are arriving but they’re scared,” said a local employee.
They fear aerial bombardment by the regime army, jihadist fighters who roam the streets across the entire region, but they’re also wary of “angering Damascus”, as some NGOs and UN agencies work in regime-controlled areas as well.
The identity of donors themselves is often unknown, and their commitment “remains limited”, a foreign rights activist said.
Some donors “publicly say they want to help the displaced but are giving very little funds to NGOs in rebel zones, just enough to make sure the situation in the camps is not too dire”, he said.
Despite the support shown for the Syrian opposition in the Western world, “the donors still fear the wrath of Damascus”, explained a Syrian humanitarian worker.
“And they fear that by contributing too much money they could trigger an influx of refugees and make life even more difficult for Turkey.”