Winter, Food Shortages, Descend on Syria’s Refugees

In a crowded makeshift camp, tens of thousands of exiles face an ever more dire existence as temperatures plummet. Mike Giglio reports from Syria. Plus, see exclusive photos from Syrian refugee camps.

Yusuf Sayman

Abu Farid was asleep in his tent when his new neighbor started to scream. He rushed outside to see that her nearby tent—one of more than 1,000 erected in the makeshift refugee camp of Atima at Syria’s edge—was engulfed in flames. The fire burned so intensely that it seemed to be lighting up the sky. But within seconds, the tent had been reduced to ash. “I saw the fire. Moments, moments,” Abu Farid said. Then the tent was gone, “all at once.” As Abu Farid’s neighbor wailed by the charred debris, he and other men searched frantically through the ashes for her children, using the faint LED lights on the bottom of their cigarette lighters to guide the way.

The fire had started accidentally—the family of nine, all crammed into one tent, had been using candles for light, since Atima has no electricity. One of the candles ignited the tent’s flammable nylon fabric lining, which provides an extra barrier against the cold, and the whole thing quickly burned. On Tuesday, Abu Farid (who gave a nickname out of safety concerns) seemed to still be recovering from the shock of the recent fire. He recounted with horror how the children’s flesh had separated from their bones as he dragged them from the smoldering ash. “They were burned wearing their clothes—jackets, blankets,” he said.

Standing beside a patch of mud where the small tent once sat, a grieving Mahmoud Aref Hayder ticked off the names of his six granddaughters, who all died in the blaze. Only the mother and a son had managed to escape from the tent alive. Around Hayder, neighbors’ children pattered around, shivering, while some residents tried to fight the winter’s relentless cold by building fires fueled by plastic bottles and other waste. “It’s something from God,” he said of the tragedy. “It’s fate.”

In the midst of a bitter winter season, the conflict in Syria continues to rage, and the number of refugees continues to climb. Exhausted from the harrowing ordeal that drove them from their homes, and often lacking the most basic of resources, the refugees’ lives are marathons of endurance, even during the warm summer months. Now, in deepest January, their existence is all the more precarious. At a Lebanese camp this week, for example, a storm blew away most of the families’ tents, while at another camp in Jordan, a winter deluge collapsed and flooded tents during the night, leading frustrated residents to stage a riot yesterday in which several international aid workers were injured as they distributed bread.

Meanwhile, this week, the United Nations’ World Food Programme announced that it would be unable to feed a million hungry residents in combat zones inside Syria, while the U.N. increased its estimate of the number of Syrian refugees upward to more than 600,000. More than 2.5 million Syrians are believed to be internally displaced because of the ongoing battle between rebels and the forces of President Bashar al-Assad. Since the start of the fighting, more than 150,000 Syrians have fled to camps in Turkey, which estimates that a further 50,000 have made their way into its towns and cities. As it scrambles to build more accommodation, Turkey said its camps can't accomodate new arrivals—but the flood of refugees has not abated or slowed.

At first, the refugees stuck on the Syrian side of the border gathered at places like Atima, pressed so close to the border with Turkey that it sits under tall guard towers. They huddled under rows of olive trees, expecting to be in camps in Turkey within days. But as days dragged into weeks and months, many have become resigned to the fact that they will be forced to wait out the rest of the cold winter here—and perhaps even longer. “They didn’t think they would stay for that long, so they didn’t think about the tents,” said Abu Laith, a rebel who helped set up the tents at Atima and now runs security there. Many residents now realize that Atima may be their new home. “This is permanent,” Abu Laith said.

For its part, Turkey says that it can’t build new camps fast enough to deal with the refugee flow. Selcuk Unal, the spokesman for the Turkish foreign ministry, notes that a surge in fighting inside Syria can send enough refugees to the border in a single day to fill all the beds that a new camp, which can take weeks to construct, would hold. He says the Turkish government believes there are at least 40,000 refugees already amassed across the border waiting for entry—an estimate he calls conservative—and notes that the government is struggling to figure out how to help the desperate families. Turkey has started to channel aid to refugees at what Unal calls “zero point”—at Atima, for example, it provides daily breakfast and has also been responsible for most of the tents present in the camp. Aid organizations have also arrived at Atima to try to ease the camp’s dire shortages in necessities such as food and medicine.

Occasionally, the Turkish government lets refugees into newly opened camp spots, but it’s barely enough to relieve the pressure pilling up exponentially on the other side. Abu Steif, the rebel commander in charge of the camp, estimates that it has 15,000 residents, though based on the number of tents, the number seemed to be lower. More refugees regularly arrive, Abu Steif said.

During the day, children can attend a makeshift tent school, though many spend their time wandering around in the thick mud that cakes everything in the camp. On a recent day, one 4-year-old girl named Salam stood in the mud near her family’s tent, looking like an unhappy duck. She wore a yellow wool cap, green sweatpants and rubber boots, and her hands were hidden up the green sleeves of her thin sweatshirt. She shivered as she scowled against the wind.

Elsewhere in the camp, a woman shouted out: “Look at my hands!” She was boiling water in metal buckets over a fire, which she fed with plastic bottles, while her young daughter stood pressed against her, with her own hands stuffed into the pockets of her mother’s overcoat. “Suffering! Suffering!” The woman yelled. “Look at my fingers! Freezing! I can’t feel my hands!”

The tight and unsanitary quarters—children dashed across open sewage from one of the scant outhouses at the camp—have caused health problems from the start, said Amina al-Sheikh, a doctor at the camp’s medical clinic, and the situation has only been amplified by the biting cold. The medical building, constructed from concrete blocks, stood at one edge of the camp. Inside, it had a sign showing a machine gun in the center of a circle, with a red line crossed through it: No Guns Allowed. Beneath the sign, young men stood with machine guns slung over their shoulders, while female residents queued to see Dr. Sheikh.

Like the rest of the camp, the clinic lacks electricity, and Dr. Sheikh sat in a pitch black room, covered in a black abaya, with her intense eyes shining through the part in her veil. On a table in front of her sat a stethoscope, a notepad and a small flashlight. Dr. Sheikh said that there was little in the way of enough medicine to treat all the sickness developing in the camp, especially among the children. Disease spreads quickly, due to the lack of sanitation, and to the fact that families sleep practically on top of each other. Recently, the camp has suffered from an outbreak of hepatitis A—or at least, that’s what Dr. Sheikh suspects it is. She has no blood or urine tests available to confirm the diagnosis, but patients have been arriving at her clinic with yellow skin and jaundiced eyes.

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Despite the hardship at Atima, many residents seemed resigned to the fact that they had nowhere else to go. Hayder, the grandfather of the family who lost six girls in a fire, said that his son had decided to move his family to Atima only grudgingly, fearing for their safety after their village had been repeatedly shelled. The very morning of the fire, he’d moved his wife and seven children to the Atima camp and set them up in their tent, before leaving to make his way back to Lebanon, where he works as a day laborer. He seemed reluctant to go, his neighbor Abu Farid remembered, and asked the other men at the camp to watch over his family while he was gone.

The recent deaths marked the third time people have died in a tent fire in Atima, residents said. After the latest blaze, many residents ripped the nylon linings from their tents in fear, even though it made them more vulnerable to the cold.

Sitting inside her tent beside a stack of blankets, Abu Farid’s wife said that after her husband helped pull her neighbor’s charred children from the burned tent next door, she came back home and cut all the fabric from her walls. Then she extinguished her candles and sat wide awake through the night, watching over her family in the dark.