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UN aid convoy reaches 40,000 Syrians

NEW YORK: The biggest UN humanitarian convoy yet to operate inside Syria has successfully distributed aid to 40,000 desperate people in a hard-to-access desert camp near the country’s southern border with Jordan, the Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) announced on Friday.

Jens Laerke from OCHA, highlighted that Thursday’s delivery to Rukban was only the second time the UN has been able to reach the remote site from within Syria, where at least eight children had recently died, and some women have had to resort to “survival sex” just to stay alive.

Rukban is around 300 kilometres from the capital Damascus and one of the last remaining remote and hard to reach locations, in dire need of regular aid from the UN and partners.

“It was a complex, large-scale aid operation, it’s the biggest ever carried out by the United Nations in Syria,” Laerke said, adding that it was carried out with UN partner the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC).

“The mission lasted nine days, it consisted of 133 trucks in total, 118 loaded with relief supplies and 15 carrying logistics support,” he said. “With more than 300 staff, volunteers and commercial suppliers that took part. It took more than two months of advocacy and negotiations with all parties to ensure safe access.”

Supply routes are often blocked and the majority of people at the Rukban site are displaced women and children who have been living there for years in harsh conditions, according to the World Food Programme (WFP).

Spokesperson Hervé Verhoosel said in a statement that amid significant poverty and a lack of basic goods, many families lack firewood and “end up collecting garbage and plastic to make a fire to cook and keep warm.”

Prices of the limited food and non-food items “are exponentially high”, the UN food agency added, and commodities have to be smuggled into the market - a drastic situation underlined by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), which described children “walking around barefoot through puddles and mud, in cold and the rain. The winter months has obviously been hard on these people and there also fatalities among the youngest.”

Spokesperson Andrej Mahecic added that in order to survive, early marriages were also “common” for girls.

“Some women are subjected to serial marriages and some told us they had turned to survival sex as a last resort,” Mr. Mahecic explained, noting also that many women were “essentially terrified to leave their mud huts or tents and to be outside, as there are serious risks of sexual violence, sexual abuse and harassment.”

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) also highlighted the deadly cost of a lack of basic medical care in Rukban.

“There are no certified doctors and only a few poorly supplied clinics,” said spokesperson Christophe Boulierac. “Since December last year, at least eight children - most of them newborns - died in the camp because of freezing temperatures and lack of medical care.”

According to UNICEF, 30 of the convoy’s 118 trucks were loaded with the agency’s life-saving supplies for children. This included health and nutrition supplies for around 20,000 children and mothers, hygiene kits for more than 40,000 people, recreational kits, school books, stationery and school bags for more than 8,000 children.

After almost eight years of war in Syria, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and millions have been displaced inside and outside the country.

WAM