For the first time, the Syrian government has agreed to allow some humanitarian aid to be delivered by the United Nations. That is aid that goes to rebel-held areas. The process is cumbersome.
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For the first time, truckloads of tents, food and blankets from the U.N. have reached Syria's largest refugee camp in a rebel-controlled area. Millions of Syrians have fled their homes to escape the violence. Now it's cold and hunger that threaten their lives.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad actually approved the mission, which is why, as NPR's Deborah Amos reports, the deliveries did not get a warm reception.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: This was the furious reaction in Syria's largest camp for the internally displaced near the Turkish border: We don't need your aid, they shouted, not from the Assad's killers, as the U.N. trucks rumbled into the camp along with cars and staff from the Syrian Red Crescent.
Atmeh Camp shelters more than 20,000 in flimsy tents. They live with dire shortages. Atmeh is a symbol of the desperate plight of millions of Syrians who fled the fighting and have no where else to go.
RHAGA ABDULLAH: One of the men was crying. One of the men was saying: What is Bashar doing? He's killing us. He's bombing our houses, and then he sent us tents?
AMOS: Rhaga Abdullah was in the camp when the U.N. trucks arrived. She works for the Maram Foundation, a private charity founded by Syrian activists.
ABDULLAH: The women stood behind, and they were saying that we need these tents. But the men were - refused to have them.
AMOS: Do you think this event in Atmeh was a failure for U.N. aid delivery?
ABDULLAH: Unfortunately, yes.
AMOS: Aid has been politicized in Syria, with documented cases of Red Crescent volunteers arrested and even killed for work in anti-government cities. But top officials are known to be close to the Assad regime. Many activists draw a distinction between the management and Red Crescent volunteers. But in Atmeh, there was deep suspicion of any government presence.
Another aid worker witnessed the rejection of crucial tents and blankets. She only gives her first name, Mayson, to protect her family.
MAYSON: People don't trust. And actually, when the trucks were coming in, the children were shouting, hey, these are full of explosives, because they come from the Red Crescent.
AMOS: These first aid deliveries came after intense negotiations between the Syrian government, the U.N. and the Syrian opposition, who say there was an agreement to keep Red Crescent cars out of the camp. But Red Crescent officials insisted on taking part. Negotiations continued last night to salvage the operation, according to an opposition official. All the U.N. tents and blankets for Atmeh have been trucked to a warehouse for now.
When the Assad government approved U.N. deliveries to rebel areas, it was considered a breakthrough. But the government also insisted aid must come from Damascus, a journey of hundreds of miles and through government-approved aid groups, which is causing tensions, says Yakzan Shishakly, who heads the Maram Foundation, based in southern Turkey.
YAKZAN SHISHAKLY: It's already known they are working with the regime and they're coming under the U.N. protection. And that's all created big tension.
AMOS: Tension is also likely to increase calls for cross-border aid. Atmeh Camp is directly across the Turkish frontier, less than a five-mile drive. But the U.N. and other international aid agencies won't cross from Turkey without Syrian government permission. U.N. officials say it risks other operations inside Syria.
For the residents of Atmeh, shortages will continue, as more than 300 Syrian civilians arrive every day. There are not enough tents or blankets for the newcomers. It's a humanitarian catastrophe, says Shishakly, who's seen a steady rise in the number of displaced, far larger than the U.N. estimates of three million.
SHISHAKLY: It's way bigger than this. You go inside Syria, nobody has a house now, a safe place. Everybody's running. We see people in the street. Inside Damascus, inside Aleppo, every family moved somewhere.
AMOS: The humanitarian crisis is only growing, he says, and the international response is failing Syria.
Deborah Amos, NPR News, Antakya. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.