The first time I visit north Syria..And all I found were displaced people – September 2012
*Any names used in the article were changed for safety of the refugees
*All photos in this report were taken by my sister inside north Syria, many have not been included for safety of the people and out of respect to those displaced who were truly suffering terrible situations.
It’s a strange feeling. Entering Syria through new borders, worried and confused as to how and what has become of my country. For over 20 years I had been visiting Syria once or twice a year- since I was born until the year 2010. It is where my entire extended family lives, so every year, as Eid approaches in the UK, unlike others, we are left without the gathering of relatives, cousins and grandparents. This is why to me, Syria is my heart and soul; it has my nearest and dearest and is a beautiful country, full of beautiful people. Its history is most wonderful and rich, particularly its Islamic history, with various Sahaba buried there- in my city, Homs, Khalid Ibn Al-Waleed is buried in the mosque most famous in the province- now of course shelled and damaged.
For the first time, I wasn’t entering Syria through Damascus airport, collecting my luggage, speeding to the arrivals and tip-toeing through the crowd to try finding my uncles, or my cousins who would run screaming with excitement. No, this time I crossed into my homeland to find it empty of homes, but not of civilians. It took a few minutes for me to take everything in. I was finally in Syria, after being absent from my country for two years, but to my left and right, and as far as any eye could see, were homeless displaced women, children, men and elderly people.
We were immediately swarmed by a group of children, one grabbed my hand and introduced herself. Her name was Amina. She was from the Aleppo suburbs and as I asked more questions, I was struck by how traumatised our children have become. With a strange, inappropriate laughter, she said “I came with my brother, and … umm… I think 3 other sisters, well I lost 2 sisters, we couldn’t find them when our house fell down after a plane hit” I asked her where her parents were, she laughed again and replied “I came with my brother and sisters only”.
Several women came and held onto me and said “why is Turkey not letting us in” “why are YOU not letting us in”, I tried to explain I had nothing to do with the Turkish government but the desperation in their eyes was heart-breaking. One of the women explained they had been here for 40 days. Her daughter was found sleeping on a snake- they have been sleeping in the open.
The land is lined with olive trees and each family has taken an olive tree as their home. They would “invite” me to their “olive tree home”. It was really difficult to grasp what had become of everyone within a few months. Some tents were present, but only two Syrian charities had made an effort to help- Hand in Hand for Syria and the Syrian Revolution General Commission. No major human rights organisations or humanitarian organisations or even the UNHCR had any presence in this “safe” area.
The refugees are trapped in this “safe zone”. It is “safe” because it is close to the Turkish border so not shelled, but it is still on Syrian land. Turkey’s kindness has accommodated hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians; however they have run out of space in the camps and are in the process of building more. The border into Turkey has been shut off in the meanwhile. As they wait to be let into Turkey, the Syrian refugees stay under the olive trees until the camps are ready.
Some of the displaced travelled all the way from the south of Syria to north by foot. One was a female my age; 22 years old with 4 children. She had walked from Homs near the south, all the way towards the north. I could not imagine being so young and vulnerable, with four children and undertaking such a journey. It took her many days, hitchhiking with strangers in a dangerous place, knowing she could be abducted at any point, but it was her only choice- she desperately wanted to get away from the warplanes and TNT barrels. She told me “I wanted to save my children after losing everything”.
I am 22 years of age, where am I in comparison to her? I was humbled and felt so small, so embarrassed to be speaking to a woman so brave and so great, who, unbelievably, was my age. Unfortunately, refuge is difficult to find in Lebanon, which is only a few hours from Homs. Assad regime soldiers have also planted landmines to prevent refugees crossing and regime shelling also reaches into Lebanon almost daily. Syrian refugees are not treated well in Lebanon.
Upon entering the camp I noticed a child crying, “stop washing me with milk!”, as his mother poured this strange coloured liquid onto him. The children noticed my inquisitive expression and said, “oh yes, this is the water we drink!” they took me to the water tanks and the water was as white as milk. We took a sample from deep inside the tank, in an attempt to get the “purest” water; it was white and opaque. As we moved through the land and spoke to families, it became clear that the poor water quality was a serious issue. Almost everyone was suffering from diarrhoea.
To make matters worse, there were no toilets- Diarrhoea. No toilets. Dear God. I asked to see what they use for toilets. The men said they had created a small brick box for the women, but I could not get close enough to inspect it as the stench was simply horrendous. After speaking to the women it became apparent many were suffering from vaginal and urinary tract infections which, of course, were causing them severe pain and there was no medication. All those ill with diarrhoea could only take rehydration therapy using the dirty water, which meant the cycle was endless and they would remain ill.
The scarcity of food didn’t help the situation. A Turkish charity dropped food packages for 2000 people twice a day, but there were over 7500 refugees to feed.
The numbers of people with medical problems were countless- a lady was bleeding in her 6th month of pregnancy, and there was nothing that could be done. A child was suffering severe seizures with no medication present. Another child affected with cerebral palsy had no medication. Several diabetic children and adults left with no treatment were suffering the effects with worrying weight loss. A little girl in dire need of her final chemotherapy dose could not get across the border to reach it. This was just a fraction of the cases present from the few people we encountered- we could not interview the over 7500. Then there were those directly affected by the war- victims of burns as a result of fleeing blazing homes, burns sustained from the use of chemical weapons, amputees left with no treatment, shrapnel pierced patients, not to mention the grave psychological trauma evident in both the children and adults.
We went into the main village to visit the schools that are now shut to be used to house refugees. Each one takes in around 2500 refugees. Each home in the main village has 5 to 6 families crammed in together, the village and borders overflowing with people fleeing the shelling. Inside the village we noticed a fire being put out by Free Syrian Army members. Civilians we spoke to said there was regime shelling in nearby areas and inevitably, pieces of shrapnel and shell sometimes landed in the village. They were used to putting out the fires regularly now.
One family told me of how they huddled into the bathroom, seven members including children as the plane began to fire. The house went down, demolished, but miraculously the bathroom was left in-tact. Without time to contemplate the miracle, they fled immediately. Another child, Ahmad, came and asked if he could show me his toy, I went along and he showed me a piece of metal. I asked what it was, with a wide grin, he replied “my toy!” His mother then explained the house was reduced to rubble so he picked this as a toy and it became special to him, it was a piece of a missile fired onto the home.
I noticed one tent was busy with people leaving and entering. Inside was a pharmacist, now homeless at the borders, who showed me his medicine boxes. He said he injects many during the night as they get bitten by scorpions and also injects antibiotics. Gratefully, he said “at least I can do something here” but the conditions were truly horrifying; in the tent used to house his family, he was treating hundreds of patients with a mere thirty boxes of medicine.
This is of course just the tip of the iceberg, just one border out of many. In a border free of shelling, there are over 4.2 million internally displaced Syrians who have fled some kind of siege, but still hungry, cold, orphaned, widowed or lost. Detentions continue daily and the death toll rises; in the past week alone I have lost 2 friends tortured to death, and 3 of my friends have been detained. Detention nearly always means severe torture and possible death.
I ask Allah SWT to help the people of Syria, aid them, be there for them, grant them peace, free them from oppression, to forgive their dead, cure their injured, treat their ill, protect their orphans, grant patience to the wives and mothers of martyrs, feed the hungry and warm them this winter. Ameen.
Since leaving, Hand in Hand for Syria, the charity I traveled with and am working with, have put a doctor on the ground to provide medical treatment and develop the clinic-tent. More medications are being purchased and an electric generator is being put in place in the clinic to assist doctors to see patients through the night. The charity has also worked on connecting a clean water pipeline from the main village to the border, and has purchased 200 tents, each one housing 6-7 people. A team from the charity headed down with the recent humanitarian aid convoy and updated the situation was better than before with over 800 tents in place and people in a better position than September, however the situation remains a crisis.
Many new charities and groups are now working here.
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