Dis­placed Syr­i­ans strug­gle to sur­vive

At squalid camps, peo­ple face food and wa­ter short­ages and can’t af­ford to leave.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Molly Hen­nessy-Fiske molly.hen­nessy-fiske @la­times.com Spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent Kami­ran Sadoun con­trib­uted to this re­port.

SHADDADI, Syria — For more than a month, thou­sands of peo­ple who fled Is­lamic State in south­ern Syria have lived on the sandy banks of a lake full of wa­ter they can­not safely drink.

Fam­i­lies with small chil­dren are sur­viv­ing on the sin­gle box of canned food they were is­sued when they ar­rived, and go­ing to the bath­room in nearby fields. Hun­dreds more ar­rive daily.

Camped in flimsy can­vas tents on the banks of Ar­ishah Lake, named af­ter the late older brother of Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad, they live with­out run­ning wa­ter or elec­tric­ity, next to burned garbage and soiled di­a­pers. Some have al­ready died. Many are sick. When strangers ar­rive, camp dwellers rush over, wav­ing small sheets of pa­per and hop­ing the new­com­ers are med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als.

The pa­pers are di­ag­noses is­sued by the sole doc­tor who vis­its ev­ery few days. He doesn’t ac­tu­ally treat the camp dwellers; he just gives them enough in­for­ma­tion to know they need treat­ment. For that, they must pay, and no one here has much money. If they did, they said, they would leave.

Most can­not af­ford to pay smug­glers the go­ing rate of $400 to es­cape. Many al­ready paid sev­eral hun­dred dol­lars to get here, trav­el­ing 80 miles north from the mil­i­tant re­doubt of Dair Al­zour. The smug­glers had promised to spirit them safely to rel­a­tives far­ther north and west. In­stead, they be­came mired in this lake­front waste­land. Kur­dish au­thor­i­ties seized their iden­ti­fi­ca­tion cards when they ar­rived and won’t let them leave un­til they pass se­cu­rity screen­ing. That could take months.

Kur­dish mili­tias forced As­sad’s sol­diers to with­draw from this part of east­ern Syria five years ago, and Kur­dish of­fi­cials have since gov­erned the be­sieged area, in­clud­ing the camp. Of­fi­cials said that they try to pro­vide for dis­placed peo­ple, but that even lo­cal cities are fac­ing dif­fi­cul­ties restor­ing elec­tric­ity and wa­ter ser­vices. They have ap­pealed to the United Na­tions for aid and re­ceived some, but not enough to help ev­ery­one ar­riv­ing at the camp, they said.

Af­ter flee­ing here with his mother and three sib­lings, 14-year-old Ja­mal Mustafa Shami sold his cell­phone to buy bread, wa­ter and ice.

“We’ll run out in com­ing days,” he said.

Sim­i­lar hastily con­structed, bare-bones camps have sprung up else­where in east­ern Syria as of­fi­cials try to cope with an in­flux of nearly a mil­lion dis­placed Syr­ian fam­i­lies and more from across the bor­der near Mo­sul in north­ern Iraq, ac­cord­ing to the U.N.

To the east of the Ar­ishah camp, near the Iraqi bor­der in Al Hol, nearly 700 Syr­i­ans have ar­rived at a camp al­ready filled with 21,000 dis­placed Iraqis who fled Mo­sul. To the north, 12,000 peo­ple live in com­mu­nal tents in a tran­sit camp by a cot­ton fac­tory in Ain Issa. To the west, near the town of Tabqa, scores of fam­i­lies who fled Is­lamic State’s self­de­clared cap­i­tal, Raqqah, hud­dled un­der scrubby pines at the Euphrates River’s edge re­cently, dodg­ing yel­low scor­pi­ons and sub­sist­ing with­out toi­lets or wa­ter un­til they clear se­cu­rity screen­ing.

“We don’t need sup­port, we just need a pa­per to get out of here, even if we are go­ing to hell,” said Jasim Mo­hammed, 42, who fled west from Palmyra to join rel­a­tives in Aleppo.

Con­di­tions at the camps are des­per­ate, even by the hor­rific stan­dards of this sixyear con­flict. Res­i­dents said four peo­ple at the Ar­ishah camp have died, in­clud­ing a new­born. Camp man­agers con­firmed at least two deaths, in­clud­ing a boy. The man­agers warned that as the bat­tle to oust Is­lamic State from east­ern Syria in­ten­si­fies, they can­not af­ford to care for the tens of thou­sands ex­pected to flee.

“The num­ber will peak and we don’t have any­thing to pro­vide them,” said Ahmed Ibrahim, the Ar­ishah camp’s man­ager.

The lake­front set­tle­ment was al­ready packed with about 3,000 peo­ple — 700 fam­i­lies — in 400 tents. Camp man­agers ex­pect to soon see an ad­di­tional 50,000 flee­ing Dair Al­zour. Hous­ing them prop­erly would cost $6 mil­lion.

Ibrahim works out of an aban­doned house atop a hill over­look­ing the camp. The road lead­ing up to the house is gated and guarded by Kur­dish forces, who also keep an eye on the camp over­all. In­side, a ship­ment of sev­eral dozen mat­tresses sat vacuum-packed in a cor­ner un­der some an­tiAs­sad graf­fiti. A for­eign char­ity dropped them off the week be­fore, promis­ing more. Ibrahim, con­cerned about caus­ing con­flict, de­layed dis­tribut­ing the mat­tresses un­til there were enough for ev­ery fam­ily to re­ceive one.

Now he wasn’t sure how much longer he could wait. The camp felt tense, des­per­ate. Ibrahim just started work here in re­cent days. He wore a Panama hat tucked over shaggy hair, a checked dress shirt and over­sized watch as if he had just ar­rived at spring break in­stead of at an un­fold­ing dis­as­ter. He had asked the United Na­tions for more help.

“We are over­loaded. We are just ask­ing the U.N. to send tents, wa­ter, bread, milk for the chil­dren, for­mula,” Ibrahim said as he sat out­side on a plas­tic chair, the only fur­ni­ture in his of­fice.

On the road be­low, guards tried to pla­cate a group beg­ging for drink­ing wa­ter. The big red tanks in the camp were empty again. It wasn’t clear when they would be re­filled.

“Why did that woman get wa­ter and we didn’t?” a woman shouted, shak­ing an empty plas­tic jug.

The guards didn’t have an an­swer. The crowd even­tu­ally dis­persed. Ibrahim shifted in his chair, ner­vous. There are short­ages of wa­ter, he said, and Kur­dish of­fi­cials can­not af­ford to pro­vide it to the camp daily.

Scott Craig, a spokesman for the United Na­tions High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees, said of­fi­cials had pro­vided the camp with tents, blan­kets and mat­tresses and were “work­ing to ex­pand fa­cil­i­ties there along­side part­ners and other U.N. agen­cies such as UNICEF, in­clud­ing pro­vid­ing wa­ter.”

He noted that as of last month, the U.N.’s $3.4-bil­lion hu­man­i­tar­ian re­sponse in Syria was 29% funded, with the refugee agency re­ceiv­ing about the same per­cent­age of re­quired fund­ing. But UNHCR was able to se­cure a route and drive 25 trucks full of tents, sleep­ing mats and other sup­plies to east­ern Syria from Da­m­as­cus in June. The U.N. also sent a team there re­cently to see how the new route could help ex­pand aid to more camps.

“A hu­man­i­tar­ian re­sponse is un­der­way and is be­ing stepped up,” Craig said.

Mean­while, the Ar­ishah camp man­ager has wor­ried about dis­ease spread­ing. Wa­ter-borne ill­nesses are on the rise in Syria, in­clud­ing hepati­tis A, ty­phoid and po­lio, which has been mak­ing a come­back this sum­mer, mainly in the Dair Al­zour area, ac­cord­ing to the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion. The WHO ran a vac­cine cam­paign there last month, plans an­other later this month and was mon­i­tor­ing for other ill­nesses at the camps, said rep­re­sen­ta­tive El­iz­a­beth Hoff in Da­m­as­cus.

At the Ar­ishah camp, peo­ple were bathing in the lake last month, in­clud­ing chil­dren, many get­ting bit­ten by mos­qui­toes and scor­pi­ons in the process. Ibrahim could see them from his perch atop the hill, where the evening wind car­ried the stench of hu­man waste.

He re­called the two peo­ple who died at the camp: a man who had walked 25 miles af­ter flee­ing Dair Al­zour and a boy who be­came over­heated af­ter ar­riv­ing.

“If we had an am­bu­lance here, maybe we could have pro­vided them with some help,” Ibrahim said.

He also wor­ried about se­cu­rity, and has asked the U.N. to help build a fence around the camp. Al­ready, of­fi­cials have caught at least one sus­pected Is­lamic State fighter try­ing to blend with civil­ians. They have also caught and jailed sus­pected smug­glers, Ibrahim said, but more keep com­ing. His col­leagues have screened 600 peo­ple since the camp opened, en­sured they were not as­so­ci­ated with Is­lamic State and re­leased them. They were try­ing to screen two dozen more.

Among those still be­ing screened was a 32-year-old baker from Dair Al­zour who asked to be iden­ti­fied by a nick­name, Abu Ha­jar, be­cause he was afraid mil­i­tants might iden­tify him and harm rel­a­tives still in the city.

He paid $800 to smug­gle his preg­nant wife, Fa­tima, out eight months ago, but couldn’t af­ford to flee un­til last month, when he paid $600 to leave with his brother and landed at the camp. Now his wife was 20 miles north with their baby and he was stuck. He said he had to avoid lo­cal mili­tias that had been re­cruit­ing at the camp, a charge Ibrahim de­nied. Armed Kur­dish fight­ers could be seen train­ing on the other side of the hill where the camp man­ager sat, watch­ing.

“We didn’t come to join mili­tias. I came to see my daugh­ter,” said Abu Ha­jar, who had al­ready shaved the beard mil­i­tants had re­quired him to wear for years.

Vis­it­ing Abu Ha­jar’s tent, Abu Omar, 40, an elec­tri­cal com­pany worker also try­ing to join his wife and two chil­dren in Da­m­as­cus, said con­di­tions at the camp were worse than in Dair Al­zour, where he faced daily airstrikes but at least had food and wa­ter.

Abu Omar ar­rived days be­fore with lit­tle more than the frayed green polo shirt he was wear­ing and a worn yel­low cap he kept turn­ing in his fin­gers. Some of his box of food had al­ready spoiled in the sum­mer heat. He thought about dy­ing here, alone on the fetid lake­front, with­out his fam­ily.

“If I had known,” he said, “I would not have come.”

Molly Hen­nessy-Fiske Los An­ge­les Times

A CAMP in east­ern Syria is one of sev­eral fac­ing a mas­sive inf lux of new ar­rivals. Help from the U.N. isn’t ar­riv­ing quickly enough.



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