Turkey’s Cilvegozu border crossing key hub in Aleppo evacuation
CILVEGOZU BORDER - Clogged daily by dozens of aid trucks, a Turkish border crossing has become a key hub in efforts to get help to those who have fled the devastation in the war-ravaged Syrian city of Aleppo.
The Cilvegozu border crossing in Turkey's southern Hatay province just east of its main city Antakya is in a peaceful area, with little sign of the horror that lies just a few dozen kilometres beyond to the south.
Already home to some three million mainly Syrian refugees, Turkey has in recent months focused efforts on looking after victims of the conflict inside Syria, rather than encouraging more to come in.
But there is full mobilisation at the Cilvegozu crossing that faces Syria's Bab al-Hawa, with Turkish NGOs playing a key role in piling aid for desperate civilians from Aleppo evacuated to the neighbouring Idlib province.
Every day, dozens of aid trucks from the Turkish Red Crescent and the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) charity head into Syria, not to Aleppo itself but to camps that are accommodating thousands of people just inside the border.
The Turkish Red Crescent has so far dispatched 216 trucks and the IHH 381 trucks, all loaded with humanitarian aid, since the start of the month.
- '80,000 person tent city' -
"I have come all the way from Konya" in central Anatolia, a truck driver said while waiting his turn to cross into the buffer zone.
"I am carrying food, baby diapers and clothes to be delivered for Syrians," he said.
Turkey has also stepped up efforts to set up a huge "tent city" in Idlib province to accommodate up to 80,000 Syrian refugees fleeing Aleppo.
According to Turkish officials, three possible sites have been identified in Idlib province.
"We are ready for any scenario," said a Turkish official.
"Turkey in the past managed such humanitarian operations with success. There's no problem there."
While Turkey is clearly keen to ensure most Syrians stay on their side of the border, it is also setting up a smaller 1,000-person tent city -- the preferred official term rather than refugee camp -- in its border town of Reyhanli.
This will house "disadvantaged Syrians" including the injured, the disabled and their families.
- 'Demanding job' -
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan since the start of the Syrian civil war championed an "open door" policy to allow all Syrians inside the country.
But in practice, access has now become much harder with Ankara preferring to see Syrians looked after inside Syria.
One of the aims of Turkey's ongoing military incursion inside Syria is to create a "safe area" that could house Syrian refugees.
Heavily injured are nonetheless being transferred into Turkish hospitals for treatment.
Since the evacuations began last week, 131 injured Aleppo people -- 46 of them children -- have been taken to Turkey as of Monday morning, a Turkish official said.
Five of them have died in hospital. Funeral cars from Turkey have also been seen bringing the dead back to the Turkish border.
A vocal critic of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, Turkey has championed itself as the broker with Russia of a ceasefire deal opening the way for civilians and rebel fighters to be evacuated from eastern sections of divided city of Aleppo in a stuttering but ongoing process.
Turkish trucks cannot cross into Syria directly but load their humanitarian aid to Syrian trucks on the border, IHH's board member Izzet Sahin said.
"This is a demanding job," Sahin said at the NGO's logistics centre at Bab al-Hawa around 1 kilometre from the Turkish border.
"The crossing of Turkish trucks into the Syrian territory is still considered a security problem," he said.
On Saturday, thousands arrived in bus and car convoys from across the country under the slogan "Open Road to Aleppo" close to the border gate.
The IHH, a pro-government Islamic charity, is playing a large role in the transport of aid for Aleppo and pressing for greater access.
It gained international prominence in 2010 when a ship it had chartered to break the blockade in Gaza was stormed by Israeli commandos in a raid that left 10 Turks dead and caused a crisis in relations that has only just been healed.