A small convoy has crossed from Turkey into Syria’s rebel-held north-west region with desperately needed medicines, blankets, tents and UN shelter kits.
It is 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 quake.
Tearful survivors carried the remains of their loved ones wrapped in sheets, while others waited on the Syrian side to receive them.
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 quake, 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.
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 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,” said Sanjana Quazi, who runs the Turkey office of the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
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.