Thursday, December 20, 2012

Unprepared for winter, Syrian refugees stuck at Turkish border

Children face very difficult conditions in a newly opened camp for internally
displaced Syrians in the village of Qah, northwestern Syria.

Once beyond the last Turkish customs outpost, a checkpoint of armed revolutionaries and a bombed-out duty-free shopping plaza, Syria’s countryside opens up, giving way to rolling hills of olive trees and tiny villages.

Along the width of one of those hills sprawls the refugee camp of Qah, which has sprung up among olive groves over the past three months and is now home to some 3,600 refugees of Syria’s civil war. Those fleeing from this brutal 20-month-long conflict once passed by here on their way to camps inside Turkey, but as Turkey closes its borders to new waves of refugees, camps like this muddy collection of tarps and tents have become a last stop for Syrians who want to escape violence in the south.

“How many new people come each day? Sometimes the better question is, how many come each hour,” says Ahmed, a 21-year-old university student and camp supervisor. Here, says Ahmed, food and medical supplies are low, there are no heaters, and with winter coming, “There is a feeling that time has run out.”

With temperatures nearing freezing in recent days and winter rains pelting the camp’s muddy walkways, life in this camp is becoming increasingly unbearable, with residents sleeping on thin mattresses and piling on blankets for warmth during the night. During the day, sandals are lost in the muck and clay as refugees brave their way to the camp well that delivers water the camp doctor says is responsible for “the serious diarrhea that at least 30 percent of the children here are suffering from and also 150 cases of Hepatitis A, which is spreading rapidly through camp.”

As if the hardships in camp were not enough, air strikes have become another source of misery that residents of this camp are unable to control or avoid. On Tuesday a MIG from the Syrian air force rumbled high above Qah for half an hour as it dropped around dozen bombs on revolutionary fighters near the town below. “It was absolutely terrifying, it reminds us of what we suffered at home,” says said Abdullah Akkad, a 50-year-old man from the town of Mouart al-Nou’man. Five months ago Akkad’s family home was destroyed in an airstrike that also cost his 10-year-old daughter Ragan her leg from the shin down. “We came here to get to safety, but you can see, we’re easily targeted here, too,” he complains as his daughter watches on, uneasy on her new crutches.

As supplies in Qah are increasingly strained by cold, sickness, and the growing tide of newcomers, refugees in turn voice frustration at their inability to seek protection in camps over the border in Turkey. “Where else can my family find safety from the war? We cannot have safety here,” says Fatima Khadour, a mother of eight from Idlib.

According to refugees staying in Qah, it has become nearly impossible over the past three months to enter Turkey without a passport, a ticket to safety that poor residents of Syria’s rural north can seldom afford to possess. In mid-October, Turkey -- which formerly had an open arms policy for refugees -- reached what the state Disaster and Emergency Management Directorate (AFAD) called its “psychological limit” of 100,000 refugees staying in its camps, which it warned were reaching capacity.

On Monday, Turkish authorities said that limit was being strained more than ever, with Turkey’s Interior Minister Beşir Atalay stating that nearly 140,000 people are now taking shelter in Turkish refugee camps. That has meant that refugees in camps like Qah have remained among the country’s estimated 1.2 million internally displaced, depending on a thin stream of supplies and hoping for more aid to come before temperatures drop further in the coming weeks.

It is a small miracle that enough supplies have been reaching Qah’s 3,600 residents so far, says camp director Ahmed. “Just two months ago, this camp grew from 50 tents to over 200 in ten days,” he says. “I don’t know how we kept up.” Managed by just 15 volunteers -- most of them fresh-faced 20-somethings like Ahmed -- Qah camp gets by on the boxes of staple foods and cooking oil that end up here from a patchwork of aid groups from Turkey, the Gulf countries and Europe. The food is extremely basic. “You have to learn to adjust,” groans Mohammed bin Talib as he fries a batch of potatoes in a pan perched over a fire of olive branches. When finished, he pours the used cooking oil carefully back from the pan to the oil tin.

Other problems take more adjusting to than the meager diet of bread, rice, olives and potatoes. There is no electricity and barely any gas, which makes it difficult to bathe -- as temperatures plummet, bathing water becomes icy cold. “How will people wash their children in a month?” asks Ahmed, who says requests for a generator from aid groups have fallen on deaf ears. Those concerns are far from the minds of most of the camp’s residents, the children who laugh and chase each other through muddy olive fields, where they play barefoot or in rubber sandals. “They might be so happy because there’s no school here,” jokes Ahmed.

Many adults find themselves similarly distant from the worries ahead, thinking about the relatives they left behind or those who are fighting in the south. “We’re devastated,” says 40-year-old Nouras Rahim on the death of her eldest of eight sons, who died in Aleppo two months ago while fighting for a militia of the anti-regime Free Syrian Army (FSA). Her husband Abdullah, a police officer before the war, joined the FSA soon after. Speaking from inside the nylon tent where she and six other members of her family live, she says her mind frequently turns to the safety of her husband. “I hope that God protects him,” she says. “He came and visited us recently, so we know he is alive.” One of her sons, Naif, declares that he too will join a nearby FSA militia, a decision which Rahim seems to have accepted with a mix of worry and pride.

Just as many families here have relatives fighting with the FSA, Rahim’s family story parallels others’ tales of loss and displacement. It also hints at the worrying degree to which the conflict has depopulated the country's war-torn north. Three months ago the family lost its home in the northern town of Kafr Nabl during an airstrike, which left seven neighbors dead and leveled most buildings on the street. “There were 10,000 people living in our home town. When we left, there were 500, most of whom were fighters,” says Naif. It's a common tale at the camp, where families often say they left behind ruined communities with few if any civilian inhabitants left.

The tales of devastation in turn emphasize another worrying thing about Qah, which is that nobody knows how many similar camps are springing up in Syria's interior. While the UN estimates that 510,000 refugees have fled abroad from the conflict, the number of internally displaced refugees is estimated to be twice or even four times that number.

Down a muddy tract at the edge of this tent city, Qah’s sole doctor is, meanwhile, occupied by the growing number of infections among refugees. His tent marked by a sign that shows an AK-47 crossed out with a large red ex, the doctor says his biggest worry is the camp’s dirty water supply and woefully unsanitary latrines. The camp has a scant supply of pain killers, antibiotics and medicines to treat diarrhea, but lacks vaccines for Hepatitis A, which is rapidly spreading in the camp and becomes infectious before showing symptoms. “We need these vaccines,” he urges. The biggest problem, however, is the coming winter. “Sicknesses are only going to get worse. The infections are going to be higher, and there will be even more people coming here month by month,” the doctor adds with a tired expression. But the chances of the doctor getting what he needs are slim. Operating in makeshift hospitals since the first protesters were gunned down in Syria’s streets by police, he says of his job, “We’re always making do with nothing.”

That might be the overall motto in Qah, where families have on average three blankets per person, but the thin nylon tents hold no warmth and the camp has no heaters. “We know we are getting heaters, that is certain,” Ahmed promises. Seeing is believing, say others. “Before winter, I want to sneak into Turkey,” says Rahammad al Tayyar, who has been in the camp with his 7-person family for the past month.

But getting into Turkey no longer means admission to camps or assurance of a warm place to stay, as many refugees across the border in the Turkish city of Reyhanlı have found. Here, refugees live outside of the camps and number between 10,000 and 40,000 versus Reyhanlı’s 60,000-person population. While many well off Syrians live comfortably here, residents have gone out of their way to help the poorest, forgiving rent, providing blankets and buying food. But few say they have heaters and most say they have been turned away from camps already overflowing with refugees. Like the residents of Qah, many are forced sit and wait, thinking through their personal tragedies in the municipal park of this simple Turkish city.

On both sides of the border, the suffering of refugees brings to mind a broader question: What will happen to those fleeing violence if stability does not return to Syria in the near future? In Qah however, Ahmed's focus is on more urgent matters. When asked where these people will ultimately go, he replies, “First, it’s time to worry about how to get them through the next three months.”;jsessionid=A1BF800F51FB1C1B35798AA58583ECD0?newsId=301259&columnistId=0