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Humanitarian Situation Worsens As Turkey Targets Kurds In Syria


Turkey's president is not responding as the United States might hope to calls for a cease-fire. President Trump first cleared the way for a Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria and then urged Turkey to stop President. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters yesterday, quote, "we will never declare a cease-fire." Today Erdogan said Turkey would stop its military operations, but only if Syrian Kurdish fighters flee a border region by tonight. A U.S. delegation led by Vice President Pence has been ordered to visit Turkey and try to figure things out.

And in the meantime, the fighting has caused a humanitarian crisis in northeastern Syria, which NPR's Jane Arraf is covering from the nearby Kurdistan region of Iraq. Jane, hi there.


INSKEEP: What are you learning?

ARRAF: So this is genuinely a humanitarian crisis across the border in Syria. It was already vulnerable, and now aid groups have pulled out, saying it's just too dangerous to work there. That means that clinics are closed, food distribution has been slowed or halted, water is in short supply. There are people massing at the Syrian side of the border trying to get across to the Iraqi side, and some of them have walked days to safety.

So all of this, of course, is in the space of just a few days, as Turkish forces advanced and U.S. forces withdrew. One European aid worker we talked to told us, we planned for several contingencies, but we never planned for them to happen all in the space of a few days.

INSKEEP: OK, so you said Syrian - people in Syria are fleeing toward the border with Iraq, the country where you are. What do you see? What do people see when they go to that border and look around?

ARRAF: An NPR team at the border this week met families desperate to cross over to Iraq, and not everyone is allowed to. There was an extended family of more than 20 people, including children, who were turned back by a border guard. Let's listen to a bit of that.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: So one of the men is saying, there's a man in the car who's about to die. And the Kurdish guard is telling him they don't have proper IDs; I can't let them cross. At the end, they drove out to spend the night in their car, in the desert.

INSKEEP: You would like, I suppose, people to have help from humanitarian relief organizations in this circumstance, and yet some of them are pulling out. Why are they saying they're doing that?

ARRAF: Well, pretty much they're all saying they can't guarantee the safety of their personnel. Places where they operate are being shelled. So they have almost all withdrawn their international staff, and local workers have gone home to their families or they've fled. Doctors Without Borders is one of the main organizations working in northeastern Syria. And we spoke by phone with Robert Onus, the organization's emergency director. He says water problems are particularly concerning near the border.

ROBERT ONUS: So not only do you have people being displaced with very little - because nobody was prepared, I think, for this eventuality - but also, they're going into an area where access to water is heavily restricted. And that's on top of the fact that many of the humanitarian organizations that were working in the area by there had to reduce or suspend their activities.

ARRAF: So a lot of those aid workers have flooded over here to Iraq to sit it out, basically, in border towns. They're waiting to see if they can go back, but they're not expecting to be able to soon.

INSKEEP: Jane, thanks for your reporting. Really appreciate it.

ARRAF: Thank you so much.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Jane Arraf. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Jane Arraf
Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.