Sunday, March 3, 2013

Azaz IDP Camp, Syria

Illuminated by a candle, Yussef, 6, and Rabiya, 10, in their family's tent. They fled Aleppo eight months ago.

Imagine, if you can, the following scenario:
One day, your own government's war planes begin to drop bombs on your city. Homes, businesses, schools, hospitals. Nothing, and no one, is exempt. People you know--neighbors, friends, relatives--die. At first hundreds, and then thousands of children, women, men, old people, young people, all gone to their deaths buried in the rubble of buildings.

Foreign journalists come to your city. They document the daily carnage in exacting detail. Stories are transmitted throughout the world. Photographs of dead and dying civilians of all ages appear in newspapers, magazines, and online. And yet, the desperate S.O.S. seemingly falls on deaf ears. Incredulous, you realize that the other peoples of the world, safe and secure in their homes, will not help to end the bombs falling from the sky.

Business comes to a halt. There is no electricity, water, or mobile phone connection. Food and fuel become difficult to find. Breadlines grow. A day comes when the fighter jets target the breadlines--the same lines where you and sometimes even your children stand waiting for food.

But the worst thing of all is the fear. It is torture. Sunshine and blue skies suddenly feel ominous, as they almost without exception bring the sounds of jets and explosions with them. At the first rumble above, your children huddle close to you, trembling, weeping. Terrified that their last day on earth, or yours, has come.

So you leave. You gather whatever you can carry, bundle your children close, and head for the nearest border. You have no money. The border is open, but the refugee camp in the neighboring country is full. So you go back to your country, find a soft place on the ground just inside, and camp in the open.

Months pass. Summer turns to winter. Your one piece of luck, aside from the fact that you at least have your family with you, is that you are situated just inside the border, close enough for humanitarian organizations to provide some shelter and food. Even so, some children and others die of exposure to the cold and the terrible conditions, and of disease.

You are practically inside the neighboring country, but not quite. You can hear the planes dropping their bombs on towns just a few kilometers away. The noise is enough to turn your gaze to the sky, enough to keep your family awake at night inside your shelter. One day a bomb falls very close, perhaps 500 meters, from the place where you are camped with your family. You feel the explosion in the ground beneath your feet. Your children tremble. You despair.

As long as the planes can fly, safety does not exist for you.

I visited a camp for internally-displaced people in Syria last week. Internally-displaced--it's an actual technical and political term. Internally displaced people, or IDP's are not recognized as refugees by the United Nations, and are thus mostly outside the scope of aid and protection provided by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). IDP's in Syria are vulnerable in many other ways, in part because humanitarian organizations have much more difficulty reaching them, especially since this war is known for its extreme danger and unpredictability.

Azaz IDP Camp is literally just inside the Syrian border, next to the entry gate. Roughly 10,000 people live there, mostly in tents, and though there are no more tents, new people arrive everyday.

According to UNHCR, almost 184,000 Syrians are registered as refugees in camps in Turkey. Another estimated 100,000 refugees are in Turkey but not in camps. (Citation here.) Almost 863,000 people are registered in a neighboring country. UNHCR says "many more" choose not to register. Syrians are currently leaving their country at a rate of 5,000 people per day. (Please click here for more Syria-region details.)

The number of Syrians on the move, internally and across borders, has sharply increased over the winter months.

Six-year-old Duaa, above at left, arrived at the Azaz IDP camp with her family just five days ago. They live very close to the Aleppo airport, which was being heavily shelled. They don't have a tent yet, so they are staying with relatives.

You may question why people would stay in Syria, which many have chosen to do, instead of crossing the border. The people I met gave a few different reasons. Some are actually waiting for a place in the Turkish camps, which are at capacity. The border is open, so people could cross and rent an apartment, house, or hotel room--IF they had money. Which many don't. So they're stuck in Azaz.

Others have relatives in Syrian towns and cities, and they are reluctant to leave them behind. Some families have sons, husbands, or fathers who are members of the Free Syrian Army and are fighting in Aleppo or other locations.

Still other people can't stay in their homes, or thanks to the bombs, they no longer have homes, but simply don't want to leave Syria. When the bombs subside and they begin to feel safe, "home" is still within reach. They can visit their friends, visit their towns, feel that they still belong somewhere. Until more airstrikes force them to flee again, back to the border camp, a place where it is easy to cross over if necessary.

If a Syrian person must, for whatever reason, stay in Syria, Azaz IDP Camp is the least bad of a range of bad options. Drinkable water arrives by truck from nearby Azaz town every day or two. A Turkish humanitarian organization, IHH (The Foundation for Human Rights and Freedom and Humanitarian Relief), provides two meals per day. The people in the camp might not get quite enough to eat, but they won't starve. After the freezing deaths of a couple of children in the camp, each tent received a small wood stove for heat. Because the camp is so close to the border, it is easier and safer for individuals and non-governmental organizations to provide some medical relief or firewood.

As for that firewood, there is no such thing as enough. When I was in Azaz, each family seemed preoccupied with this question: where will we find fuel today? I also watched people try to burn anything and everything in their tent stoves--plastic wrappers, tree branches, paper. Above, boys take an ax to a wooden pallet, chopping it into pieces small enough to fit in the stove.

The downsides to Azaz Camp, (aside from being near enough to the almost daily air strikes to hear them): there is no sanitation. There are a few toilets, but no place for people to bathe. Trash, dirty water, and used diapers collect on the ground. And people are packed quite close together. According to an Azaz Camp doctor I spoke with, the most common ailments include diarrhea (the non-treatable kind caused by viruses), upper-respiratory infections including bronchitis, dermatological problems such as scabies and lice, and psychological issues--depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress.

There are occasional bursts of electricity, maybe an hour or two per day, or none at all.

Um Bakri, center, of Aleppo, and her family trim wild plants that they gathered to use in salad. People in Azaz Camp are supplementing their diet with what they can find growing nearby. "We don't care about the food," said Um Bakri, when I asked if she and her family had enough to eat. "We only care about security."

Riyadh Zeydu trims 6-year-old Romy's hair in a make-shift barbershop. There is a bit of comfort in continuing everyday, normal activities.

Seventh-grade girls attend Arabic class in Azaz Camp school. The tents for roughly 400 students were donated by an individual, the desks salvaged from damaged and/or empty schools in Azaz town. The school opened two months ago. Children attend classes for two hours each day in either a morning or an afternoon session. (This allows the school to accommodate 800 children between the ages of 6 and 16, instead of only 400.) They learn the basics: Arabic, English, math, and religion.

The children come to school with special challenges--they may have psychological distress because of traumatic events or health problems due to poor living conditions in the camp. Some have not been in school for a long time and have to catch up to their grade level. "We try everything to make them happy," said Abdul Razaq, a teacher.

Adel Talib, 13, watches a family friend cut the roots of an olive tree out of the ground, just outside Azaz IDP Camp. Adel and his family are still living in Azaz town, because they don't feel like they have anyplace else to go. Like residents of the camp, they too, are desperate to find fuel for heating. According to camp administrators, as many as 70% of Azaz residents have fled the heavily-shelled town.

Fatma Um Mahmoud and her family of 15 had just arrived in the camp on February 24th, and were still in shock after what is widely believed to be a ballistic missile, fired from Damascus, landed near their home in Aleppo the day before. (Please see the Human Rights Watch report here and the New York Times stories here and here on the recent use of these weapons.)

"They were still pulling corpses from the houses when we left," said Um Mahmoud. She said they kissed their friends and neighbors goodbye before leaving, and upon their arrival in Azaz Camp, learned of yet another strike in the same vicinity. She believes the people they left behind are all dead now.

Despite eight months of air strikes on the city of Aleppo, Um Mahmoud said she and her family didn't believe the Syrian government was targeting civilians until they saw it with their own eyes. She estimated an area of 70 destroyed buildings (houses) from this one missile.

The family is trying to leave Syria for Turkey as quickly as a space in a camp becomes available for them. (Waiting list.)

Um Abdullah, mother of five, prepares tea. 

It is important to note that not everyone in the camp was a flag-flying supporter of the Free Syrian Army. When I asked one family what they thought of Bashar Al-Assad and of the FSA, they refused to comment more specifically than this, "We hate war. We just want the war to end."

Fatma, 28, inside the tent she shares with her mother, brother, sister, and three children. Fatma is pregnant with a fourth child, but there is almost no red meat to eat. She recently discovered that she is anemic, in addition to a lingering cough that she hadn't been able to shake for several weeks.

Fatma pours tea for her mother and a friend. They have lived in the IDP camp for the past eight months.

Girls wait in line in the evening to collect their family's share of supper.

Men and boys in line for drinking water at dusk.

I could present all of these photographs as if this was a newspaper or magazine and I was merely passing along the message. Like, "Here you go, these are the images and stories of Syrian people. This is happening." But this blog is not a newspaper, and I want to share not only the facts, but also the experience of taking the photographs and talking to the people and what it was like to actually be there. Because I think bits of truth can be found there too.

For me, the most difficult thing about being in the camp was trying to explain to people who asked me why the world has allowed the Syrian government to kill thousands of its own citizens, mostly non-combatants, over the past couple of years. And why, despite great success with a no-fly zone in Libya, Syrian war planes still fly and bomb freely. And really, this is not explainable. Two years is so much time, plenty of time to do something. 70,000 dead and more each day. Why? How?

Yes, okay, I'm a journalist, my job is to be objective, blah, blah, blah. But when you're there in the flesh, it's not so easy to look people in the eye and try to explain why so many defenseless people have been killed and we haven't done anything. It's impossible not to feel deep shame. Especially when someone is looking at you, still for some reason with hope, that America has the power to stop the bombs. Many of the people I spoke with believed a NATO-enforced no-fly zone would already go a long way toward decreasing the number of civilian deaths. Perhaps even more importantly, it would go a long way toward lessening the feeling of total abandonment by the rest of humanity, a feeling that a lot of Syrians expressed to me.

It is only a matter of time, and that time has long since come and gone, when Syrians begin to say things like, "Why do they (Western powers) want Syria to be destroyed?" and "We heard a rumor that America was supporting Bashar Al-Assad with money." and "I hate your president. Really I do."

And yet, at the same time, the most striking thing about my experience inside the camp, the thing that stays with me now, was how genuinely kind and welcoming the people were to me. I am an outsider, and a citizen of a country that has pretty much forsaken them. They have been through hell, more than I can wrap my head around, and I was warmly invited into so many tents, drank so much tea, and even ate with some families. One man said, "Please, please. Tell your government, tell the people in America, tell them that we are peaceful people. We are good people."

His voice is ringing inside my head. So I am telling you. These are good people. These are peaceful people.