ISTANBUL - As the war inside Syria rages, aid organizations find themselves on the outside looking in -- fully aware of the daily destruction across the border, but unable to directly reach those in need because of the violence. That's where people like Mahmoud come in.
Mahmoud, who asked to be identified using a pseudonym, is a Syrian in his thirties who has worked with a Western-backed international aid organization operating on the Turkey-Syria border for the past six months. With security concerns and bureaucratic hurdles keeping most international aid workers from actually entering this war-torn country, NGOs rely on Syrians like Mahmoud to make the hazardous trek across the border to assess the needs for assistance and deliver aid to the local population.
Syrian "implementing partners" pick up the supplies at warehouses in southern Turkey, near the border, and drive them into Syria -- avoiding major highways to mitigate the risk of being attacked by a plane or helicopter. "The roads are bad because there are many parts of the road that are destroyed because of the shelling," Mahmoud said.
It's dangerous work. Mahmoud recounted a trip to opposition-held northern Syria this winter, when a military helicopter menaced the village he was visiting. The helicopter dropped barrels filled with TNT explosives onto the town. As Mahmoud sought shelter, running toward the relative safety of a basement, he saw two children and their mother standing on the roof of a house and watching the helicopter's deadly activity. The children and their mother did not hide, nor did they point or cry out.
"This is something horrible," he said. "I still have my feelings. I am afraid of the shelling. The people who stay inside [Syria] all the time, after all this, they are not afraid of anything."
Mahmoud's job is to help deliver aid, document how it is used, and gather data on the humanitarian needs inside Syria -- and then report back to his employer. It's not work that's going to be complete any time soon.
"What is going on in Syria...we will need aid for five years after the fall of the regime," he said. "It is not only the materials that you have to deal with, the destruction of buildings, the material damage. There is something else that has to do with the psychology of the people. Here there is big damage."
As the Syrian conflict approaches the two-year mark, it has left more than 60,000 dead -- and the devastation grows larger by the day. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that more than 850,000 people have become refugees. Inside Syria, the situation is even worse: There are 2 million people internally displaced and four million are in need of assistance. According to Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for the U.N. Refugee Agency, some 7,000 Syrians are fleeing the country every day due to the worsening crisis.
About 15 international NGOs -- including big names such as Doctors Without Borders, Save the Children, and the Turkish IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation -- operate in southern Turkey, sending supplies into Syria. Private donors fund most of the NGOs, said aid workers speaking on the condition of anonymity, though some receive funding from the United States and European governments. Mahmoud estimated that a total of 50 international aid workers have established themselves in the Turkey-Syria border area.