'Death is more merciful': Idlib's displaced build makeshift camps in sub-zero temperatures

Outside a village on the Turkish border, Syrians build tents or sleep under trees after fleeing regime bombardment

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Ahmed Al Khazar once lived in a comfortable home in southern Idlib. But now he and his family of nine struggle to keep warm in a makeshift tent close to the Turkish border as temperatures drop below zero.

When he arrived at the unofficial Atme settlement two and a half years ago, Mr Al Khazar lived under an olive tree before he was able to sell his home, furniture and belongings to buy the material to build a tent.

Atme is one of many tent cities east of the Turkish border that sprang up because of overcrowding in official displacement camps operated by the UN and aid groups.

Settlements like this have grown exponentially as the Syrian regime pushes to retake territory in Idlib province, which is the country’s last rebel stronghold.

The most recent offensive has caused the largest displacement of people during almost nine years of civil war.

Inside an unofficial camp in Syria's Idlib province

Inside an unofficial camp in Syria's Idlib province

More than 800,000 people have been displaced since December 1 and more than 1,700 civilians have been killed in the fighting since April, the UN estimates.

There are no figures for the number of people in the Atme community, but an unofficial camp close by hosts almost 122,000 people. Atme families say they leased the land, with many living under olive trees before eventually buying their own tents.

Mr Al Khazar fled from his home in Sinjar village to head towards the Turkish border in the hope of finding safety.

But with the border closed and increased vigilance by the Turkish security forces, he and hundreds of thousands of others found themselves trapped. He tried to cross, but the Turkish army caught and stopped him.

"Smuggling is taking place but it is costly and dangerous for the children if I were to take them with me," Mr Al Khazar told The National.

"Living conditions, I swear to God, are difficult here. If I had the opportunity to enter Turkey, I would."

Enough is enough. This is the most we can bear

Before the war he installed marble, sinks and ceramic tiles, but there is no need for these skills among people who live in tents. He now collects scrap metal to earn money.

Khalil Youness, who also lives at Atme, said he sold the goods obtained as a dowry for his daughter to buy a tent for 20 of his relatives to sleep in.

His family fled their Idlib mountain home when his son-in-law, a father of three, was killed in an air strike.

“Do I have the power to flee to Turkey?" Mr Youness asked. "It is impossible. I was told that if I decide to cross to Turkey, my children and I will risk being killed.

“But I have come down here and the mud, the roads – the situation is horrible. Enough is enough. This is the most we can bear.”

Unicef said that three quarters of Idlib’s three million population are women and children, and that 1.2 million children are in desperate need, with food, medicine and water in short supply.

Yet aid groups say the greatest threat to life at the moment is a lack of shelter.

As temperatures hit their lowest in years, dropping below zero at night, people are burning toxic bundles of rubbish for warmth and there are reports that some have frozen to death.

Although the UN is sending tents and emergency kits across the border, it does not have the resources to help everyone.

Only 137,000 of the displaced have found their way into the overstretched official camps, with another 85,000 people in unofficial settlements such as Atme, UN figures show.

Others take shelter in abandoned cars, ruined buildings, under trees or are forced to take their chances in the open.

This Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020 photo released by the opposition Syrian Civil Defense rescue group, also known as White Helmets, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows Syrian walking outside their tents at a displaced people camp near Turkish border, in Idlib province, Syria. A military offensive on an opposition-controlled region of northwestern Syria has created one of the worst catastrophes for civilians in the country's long-running war, sending hundreds of thousands of people fleeing, many of them sleeping in open fields and under trees in freezing temperatures. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP)
A camp for displaced civilians near the Turkish border in Syria's Idlib province. Hundreds of thousands of people are sleeping in tents or in the open in freezing temperatures after fleeing fighting in the province. Syrian Civil Defence White Helmets via AP

“There are a lot of people who have been displaced for the second or third time, so those people do not have the resources any more to travel with their shelters,” said Emmanuel Massart, co-ordinator of operations in Syria for Doctors Without Borders.

“They arrive in camps where there is no shelter available and they do not have shelter themselves so they are turned away and perhaps create their own camps.”

“There was an example on Twitter of a small child who froze to death.

"In one of the camps that we support a whole family died during the night because they were asphyxiated by their heating equipment, perhaps from carbon dioxide."

As well as the bitter cold, heavy rain in northern Syria has left the ground muddy. Children in camps slop around playfully in gloopy sludge, but the damp means respiratory infections are common.

The lack of non-food items also means few can heat their homes, cook or maintain hygiene levels. The bad weather makes it difficult for aid groups to provide help during air strikes.

“The freezing weather is only increasing the suffering for millions of people,” said Mousa Al Zidane of the Syrian Civil Defence volunteer rescue group, more commonly known as the White Helmets.

"It’s becoming very challenging for us to evacuate civilians or go on search and rescue missions in the snow and freezing temperatures, but we are doing what we can.

“The situation for people in camps is catastrophic because tents can’t protect them from the cold and there’s no way for them to keep warm.”

At the same time, clashes between the Syrian army and Turkish forces, who seek to temper the regime’s offensive and stem the flow of migrants, have moved the two countries closer to conflict than at any other point during the civil war.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in December that Turkey, already home to 3.6 million refugees and suffering its own economic troubles, cannot handle a "new refugee wave" from Syria.

Further south from Atme along the border, other displaced families say they are struggling to get by and are forced to move from shelter to shelter as the Syrian army advances northwards.

“We have come to this house. It was filled with dust and dirt,” said Abu Mohammad from inside a small construction site in the border town of Darkush. "We have spent two days cleaning it."

The owner has allowed him, his wife and four to five families with whom they are travelling, including many children, to stay for a few days, as long as they leave before the end of the month.

“We brought plastic sheets,” Abu Mohammed said pointing to the rooftop, where they will hopefully cover them from rain.

“We found a blanket on the street and hanged it on the door; we covered the windows with plastic sheets. We collected plenty of unwanted items in the trash and used them to make fire.”

They have been there for 10 days, but before that they wandered the streets looking for places to sleep, being moved on from anywhere they stopped.

His wife, Umm Mohammed said it was the third time the family has been displaced, having left their home in another part of the province after air strikes “killed six of our young people, four children, a woman and a man”.

She said they had not been welcome in other towns and are living in perdition.

“I swear death is more merciful to us,” Umm Mohammed said. “I wish we were back home and surviving on a piece of bread, or even on the soil of our homeland. We would rather eat soil than beg for mercy.”

* Ahmed Khaled contributed reporting from Idlib