(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

UN agencies gear up for northern humanitarian corridor

[Iraq] Arbil, Girls.
Dave Tate

Following the successful arrival of two trucks from Turkey carrying water-purification, medical and educational materials to the northern Iraqi city of Dohuk on Wednesday, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Food Programme (WFP) are now gearing up for much larger deliveries.

“This was a test run for us,” UNICEF spokesman, Michael Bociurkiw, told IRIN on Thursday in the eastern Turkish border town of Silopi, 15 km from the border with Iraq. “We hope to follow this up with a convoy of up to 40 trucks in the next few days.”

WFP on Thursday evening had 30 trucks loaded with the majority of a 1,000 mt wheat flour consignment on the road headed for Silopi, agency spokeswoman Heather Hill, told IRIN. The WFP trucks are expected to cross the border into northern Iraq on Friday afternoon and then head for the agency's warehouse in Dahuk. "WFP is concerned there has been no distribution of wheat in the region since March," Hill said.

According to the UNICEF official, although the border had not been entirely closed, the agency had been having difficulty finding drivers willing to cross due to security concerns. Customs formalities had also caused the trucks to be delayed at the border for four days before crossing over on Tuesday, he added.

Last week Reuters news agency quoted Turkish lorry drivers as saying that Iraqi troops had seized at gunpoint a 300 mt commercial shipment of food they had been transporting through northern Iraq, holding them prisoner for 10 days.

Their convoy of 19 trucks had left Turkey for Iraq on 16 March, four days before the start of the war, to deliver food aid to the Turkmen minority, a group with ethnic links to Turkey, in the Kurdish-controlled Iraq town of Sulaymaniyah, the drivers reportedly said. The convoy had been halted on a road close to the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, still under the control of Saddam Husayn’s government, the report said.

But sources in Silopi told IRIN that the situation along Turkey’s southeastern border had improved somewhat, making the country an effective logistical base to provide much needed assistance to the people of northern Iraq.

The next convoy carrying UNICEF supplies, purchased under the UN’s Oil-for-Food Programme and bound for northern Iraq, will set out from the agency’s bonded warehouse from the Turkish port city of Mersin, 850 km southwest of Silopi.

Bociurkiw noted that the agency had US $4 million worth of goods earmarked for northern Iraq at the facility, including water-purification materials, pharmaceuticals, hospital equipment and water tankers.

“With US $4 million worth of goods ready to be moved and another US $10 million on the way, it’s important to fully utilise the humanitarian corridor through Turkey,” he said, noting that a week before the conflict started, some 50 trucks contracted by UNICEF had passed through Habur, the main border crossing on Turkey’s 331-km border with Iraq, bound for Dohuk and destinations beyond.

Meanwhile, UNICEF, which has been working in the region for 50 years, is continuing its operations through its offices in the governorates of Dohuk, Arbil and Sulaymaniyah - with particular focus on the movements of internally dispersed persons (IDPs).

The current conflict has caused thousands of families to leave their homes in the north, seeking shelter in safer places away from the constantly shifting front lines. While most of these people are living in relative safety with relatives, there are a minority who have failed to find shelter, and their situation is alarming.

On Wednesday, in the Dohuk area alone, there were reports of the presence of 45,000 IDPs, most of them from Dohuk city, and also reports of others along the Kurdish-controlled border area with Iraq proper.

The UN agency is heavily involved in vaccination programmes in the region, the provision of clean water, as well as psychosocial counselling of residents.

UNICEF currently has some 150 local staff on the ground in northern Iraq. “We are very proud of them,” Bociurkiw said. “They are keeping our operations running as close to normal as possible, often under very difficult conditions.”

UNICEF had an emergency response plan prepared before the crisis enabling it to respond to the urgent needs of up to 250,000 people. Since the first day of the conflict, it has been working without disruption to implement the plan, with a focus on the most vulnerable families.

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