Wings on Wheels

Dilaver ‘Dila’ Cantürk is a jovial guy. The young truckie from Turkey has only just parked the all-new Mercedes-Benz Actros in a car park at the Austrian border to Hungary, but he is already out of the cab and dancing on the boardwalk. The radio is playing Turkish pop music, and Dila is chatting to a group of fellow drivers that just joined him on the sidewalk.

It’s hard to believe the group is slowly approaching the most talked-about war zone on the planet, but the men are about to deliver 11 semi-trailers worth of food and medical supplies to a refugee camp in the Syrian borderland. It’ll be the largest European humanitarian aid mission to the Middle East since the conflict broke out. 

The much-needed freight has been organised by German aid organisation Luftfahrt ohne Grenzen (LOG, also know as ‘Wings of Help’ outside Germany). Lead by ESA astronaut Dr Ulf Merbold, the organisation is specialised on providing relief supplies via air; but given the mere amount of food, medical equipment and blankets going to Syria, LOG decided to use road transport instead – labelling it ‘Wings on Wheels’.

In Istanbul, another three trucks will join Dila’s convoy, which was organised by Daimler subsidiary CharterWay and Turkish fleet Ekol in less than a fortnight. In fact, CharterWay allocated the Actros prime movers for the length of the trip and also paid for accommodation and food without much ado, while Ekol provided both trailing gear and staff.

The transport company can draw on a pool of more than 2,500 semi-trailers based all around Europe, but deliberately chose dry vans for the arduous journey into the Middle East to ensure maximum load security along the way.

Ekol, a long-time affiliate of the Daimler Group and acclaimed Germany-Turkey specialist, also ensured all trailers received the same sign-writing prior to the trip to Syria – not only to promote the peace mission while on the road, but also to point out the humanitarian aspect of the trip to authorities outside the EU.

In fact, it’s the local authorities that Dila and the team dread the most on the way to Syria. They are constantly on the lookout for policemen and meticulously follow the driving schedule they agreed on to avoid the exorbitant penalties that apply in countries like Bulgaria. “If you your drive five minutes more than you’re allowed to, they will charge you €1,500 on the spot,” he says. “But if you have a look around, it’s understandable.”

The road network Dila and the team encounter between Frankfurt and the camp in Gaziantep is rough and potholed; and most of it has not been upgraded since the end of the socialist era. Withered parkland and run-down factories line the way, and even all-so talkative Dila is cowed by the dull melancholy they disseminate.

The joy and spirit of optimism he experienced in the industrialised part of Europe suddenly feels far away as the convoy traverses Europe’s less populated east; leaving ample time to reflect on the conflict while watching the rear doors of the truck in front twist and creak hitting pothole after pothole.

In Istanbul, the convoy takes the first extended break to swing by the Mercedes-Benz Türk bus plant and attend the first official press conference after leaving Germany before visiting the Ekol head office and a second Mercedes Benz plant in Aksaray.

From here, it is an eight-hour drive to the camp in Gaziantep, a place so well guarded that local police has to escort the now 14 trucks on the final leg to a Red Crescent warehouse in Kizilayi, where they arrive just after nightfall. The Red Crescent is a sister organisation of the Red Cross and responsible for running the giant camp, which is home to more than 200,000 some refugees. Meanwhile, the amount of fugitives who hide in Turkey and are not officially registered is said to be around one million people and counting.

To say thank you to the team at Daimler and Ekol, LOG president Frank Franke insists on inviting the whole group to a humble kebab restaurant in Gaziantep. Each driver is presented with a certificate for taking the risk, but even Dila, the dancer, is now speechless – knowing that at least 11 UN staff and 22 Syrian Red Crescent volunteers have been killed amidst the conflict.

Despite the inherent risk, Turkey did not close the border to Syria just yet, creating somewhat of a gateway for thousands of refugees to the west. The Ekol team is well aware of the challenge and the responsibility the Turkish Government has taken on, and to many of them, making a small contribution was worth the risk.

Dila, for instance, came back from a family holiday to join the convoy. “It is important to help those who need help,” he says. “And it’s important we had a good team to deliver all the supplies unscathed.”

Cervet Yalçin, also an Ekol driver, adds, “Some people think we are just simple truck drivers spending all our time on the road listening to the radio, so the convoy was a great opportunity to show that we, too, want to make a difference and to prove that our special skills can be used to do good as well.”

Although the drivers’ job is done, they use the next day to drive up to the border town of Kilis, a stone’s throw away from the battlefield. Kilis is home to a “wild” camp of unregistered refugees hiding in the thick forest. They are safe here, but there is no infrastructure or support network to provide medical aid. One refugee tells Dila he has not had a shower since he left home some 46 days ago, and that diseases are spreading rapidly in the camp. Even gunshot wounds stay untreated.

But while help is urgently needed here in the borderland, the Syrian government has denied aid organisations the right to engage in cross-border operations from surrounding countries for fear that much of the aid would go to opposition areas. Some independent aid organisations have provided such cross-border deliveries without the government’s consent, but UN agencies are not allowed to.

Given that almost as many Syrians are on the run as the entire population of Switzerland, Dila is now hoping for more people in Europe to take an interest in the conflict. “If we inspired one person to follow in our footsteps, we did a good job.”

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