The Refugees Of Atmeh

By: Robert Asher, Photo By: Andreas Stahl

Norwegian Refugee Council ‘Perspective’ Magazine – 4th Quarter 2012

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Just east of Reyhanli at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, cars and trucks filled with supplies stretch back for kilometers on both sides. The border has reopened, but progress getting through is painstakingly slow. A war may be raging, and the economy crippled in many parts of Syria, but those who see an opportunity to make even minimal profits are willing to endure the chaotic ordeal required to get across. Trucks packed with humanitarian supplies emblazoned with FSA logos can be seen, and cars filled with nutritional biscuits clog the road. At noon prayer time the border closes and the tensions of many who have been waiting since before daybreak quickly rise. Heated arguments born out of despair are cooled by family, friends, and strangers in equal measure. Men with severe injuries, including amputated legs and hands are carried up to and across the border, while ambulances slowly navigate through the jumble of trucks which are all vying for a single inch of forward space as soon as it materializes.

Once across and inside Syria, a 45min drive on back roads through small villages leads to a refugee camp perched on a hillside near the town of Atmah. 9000 people, including close to 5000 children occupy land inside an olive grove. Tents, some donated by the FSA, and others purchased with the meager savings of the refugees themselves, are organized on a harsh and dusty landscape. No sign of any international humanitarian assistance can be seen, and this is confirmed by the refugees we spoke with. Many blame corrupt merchants who have taken on consignments sent by humanitarian organizations, siphoning off much if not all the supplies originally destined for the camp, while others blame the FSA. The Free Syrian Army claims to be in control at the camp, but law and order continues to be a major issue.

One father willing to speak appeared destitute, describing the extremely unsanitary and desperate situation they were facing. His family and many others at the camp walked for over 2 days from their homes, now completely destroyed by fighting, on the outskirts of Hama 160 km to the South. He expressed deep concern, with winter quickly approaching, that a lack of outside assistance would make for extremely difficult conditions in the months ahead. Blankets are in short supply, and heating supplies such as firewood and oil are near impossible to acquire. The olive trees these people nestle between are owned by a farmer in the nearby town, and harvesting the oil or cutting the wood would only serve to further strain their precarious relationship, buffeted only by the landowners generosity. Over sweet tea, on a plastic carpet infested with flies, the man further describes a lack of access to clean water, food, medical supplies, sanitary toilets, and educational material for the children. The additional menace of snakes and scorpions further serves to deteriorate the already extremely low morale. Stale, dirty water is kept in buckets and old cooking oil tins, while scraps of bread infested with flies lay on carpets outside each tent. Each family must subsist on one loaf a bread per day. Some families spoke of collecting rain water to drink, which in turn has been the cause of a number of ailments. Fear of an outbreak of Cholera is a major concern.

A doctor who works in the camp listed the major medical issues he is fighting an uphill battle to treat. These include cases of hepatitis, inflammation of the lung such as bronchitis, asthma, and pneumonia, inflammation of the pharynx or pharyngitis, and a number of different forms of intestinal disease. Simple medicines easily obtainable in the West have become near impossible for him to acquire in the amounts that are needed at the camp.

According to the latest report on Syrian refugees by Human Rights Watch, ‘Tens of thousands of Syrians fleeing recent fighting – including in Syria’s Aleppo, Idlib, and Deir el Zor provinces’ are stranded on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey. “Over 10,000 desperate Syrians fleeing the terror of aerial bombardment and shelling are stuck on the Turkish border, many living in miserable conditions,” said Gerry Simpson, senior refugees researcher and advocate at Human Rights Watch.

When posed with the question why they would not rather seek refuge in the official camps set up by the Turkish government on the opposite side of the border, the response was one more based out of fear of the unknown, and simple pride. “This is our homeland, we don’t want to end up like Palestinians” one woman exclaimed, “The camps in Turkey are a prison which we would never be able to escape”. When questioned on their religious affiliation, whether those in the camps are Sunni or Shiite, or any of the other multitude of ethnic/religious groups that make up this ancient land, they are quick to respond; they have no desire in choosing sides, survival being their only concern.

Further in to the camp children gather together on a small carpet drawing images of their homes before the war, and how they imagine life after, while others depict tanks and homes ablaze. The flag of the Free Syrian Army is a popular image. A lone 23 year old volunteer from Aleppo serves as the only form of outside educational assistance these children have received since arriving here last winter.  Safa Faki, a recent fine arts graduate from Aleppo, uses her own limited savings, and what little she can gather from family and friends, to purchase art supplies, “All of the pens, colors, and paper I pay for out of my own pocket” She strongly believes that providing a creative outlet to the children is the least that can be done to alleviate the trauma many have experienced, “The children always draw what they have experienced”. Speaking in near fluent English Safa adds: “If I had the supplies I could teach the children Arabic and English, but I have nothing” as countless children crowd around begging for her attention.

The dominant factor in the camp are the children. Most smile and pose for the camera, while others play amongst themselves in the dusty, dirty ground. It would be easy to assume from their playful demeanor that they are unaffected by their situation. But upon closer examination, many appear unbathed, in clothes that appear old and worn. Exhaustion, hunger, and confusion sit deep in many children’s eyes. Returning to the homes of their birth an impossibility for now and for the foreseeable future.

One boy, 19 years old, spoke of good times with friends, playing football and listening to traditional music at night before the war. Now, 9 months after arriving in the camp he still says he would rather be here then facing the indiscriminate shelling back in his hometown. In one year, if the war continues, and he manages to survive the conditions in the camp, he plans to join the FSA; 20 being the minimum age requirement set to join the rebels. Until then, his last year of childhood will be spent as a refugee in his own country.

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