Refugee crisis mounts in Syria

2012-11-08 11:00

Bab El-Hawa - Hundreds of Syrians are streaming into makeshift refugee camps on the Turkish border every day, fleeing for their lives as the government escalates air raids on northwestern towns and villages.

Volunteer aid workers are struggling to cope with the humanitarian crisis as warplanes and helicopter gunships try to reverse significant rebel gains made in Idlib province in the war to bring down President Bashar Assad.

But some refugees say they would rather return home and risk death than eke out a miserable existence under canvas as winter sets in.

"We were moving from village to village but now they're bombing everywhere," said Fatima Gharbiyeh, at an unfinished camp that on Tuesday welcomed its first families at the Bab el-Hawa border crossing.

She, her husband and four children arrived in a group of 18 families trucked by rebels from Jabal al-Zawiya to the camp, just across the road from a rebel firing range and within earshot of gunfire.

It is the third camp to spring up in this tiny corner of the border. Thousands of others are already living in the villages of Atme and Qah.

Idlib residents targeted

For Fatima's cousin Mohammed Gharbiyeh, it is the second migration in weeks as he struggles to escape the expanding tentacles of the 20-month conflict.

He shuttered his supermarket in Damascus a month ago, thinking his village in Idlib might be safer. But it was worse, and he now hopes the close proximity of Turkey will be a deterrent against shelling and air strikes.

"We can't go back while the regime is still there because we witnessed the horrible things that they did," he said.

"They are bombing and shelling all the time, and at every checkpoint if you're from Idlib you are either killed or put in jail just for being from Idlib."

The United Nations estimates that more than 2.5 million people have been affected by the war, with more than 358 000 refugees registered in neighbouring countries and many more unregistered.

The newest displaced come from a roll call of the sites of some of the heaviest fighting in recent weeks, little more than an hour's drive south through the olive groves.

Full to capacity

They come from Kfar Nabal, where the horrifying aftermath of a heavy air strike was filmed this week, from Maaret al-Numan, and from Al-Atarib.

"The flow of refugees depends on the intensity of the bombing. Sometimes it's 100 a day and sometimes 500. The day before yesterday we got 1 000," said Ghassan al-Sheikh, aged 52, a volunteer helping refugees at the school in Atme.

The nearby camp at Qah was only inaugurated four weeks ago, but organisers say it is already full with more than 4 000 people and that they desperately need outside support to cope.

Supplies of tents have run out. New families are forced to sleep under the olive trees, bunched in cars or in a tented mosque until space becomes available.

There's no electricity, and there are not enough toilets and bathrooms. There is a medical tent, but parents complain that their children are suffering from diarrhoea.

Meals are provided twice a day. Breakfast comes from the Turkish Red Crescent and is a bread roll, a triangle of processed cheese, tomato, packet of butter and one of jam, and dinner is cooked in the school at Atme.

'Nothing else matters'

But Fadwa as-Saleh, aged 40, is one of those desperate to go home rather than watch her 11-year-old disabled daughter suffer without milk, nappies and medicine.

Ibtahal can neither talk nor walk - she can only lie on a mat, rocking herself back and forth as one of her brothers bats the flies away from her open mouth.

The camp at Qah provides nappies only for babies, so her mother has to tie bin liners round her waist to stop her from soiling her clothes.

Saleh bursts into tears, wiping her eyes with her hands, after a morning spent waiting in vain for her husband to collect her.

"Even if he wants me to stay here, I won't," she said, beads of sweat glistening on her forehead.

"I only want to go home, nothing else matters."

No peace until Assad steps down

Saleh has five boys and two daughters. But her husband's son has defected from Assad's army and her main fear is that the family could be targeted.

"It's no life here, but when they start bombing it'll be terrifying for them [her children] because they were terrified every time they bombed," she said.

She says she had little thought about politics until the army started killing its own people. Now Saleh believes there can be no peace until Assad steps down.

Her son Mustafa is a pragmatic 3-year-old more worried about the present.

"I like Bashar because I don't want to get shot," he said, smiling slightly anxiously and looking up at his mother.