Dispatch from Atma encampment: ‘Overcrowding is immense, and the lack of general services is real’

Thousands of civilians have fled to Syria’s largest encampment for the internally displaced on the Idlib-Turkish border over the past month amidst daily Russian and regime airstrikes over Aleppo and Idlib provinces.

Located in north Idlib on the Syrian-Turkish border, the Atma camps straddle the no-man’s-land between the two nations in a 5km strip that is no wider than 80 meters.

The Atma encampment is made up of 54 sub-camps. Since opening in 2014, the population has swelled to nearly 60,000 people, most of whom fled their homes in northern Aleppo, Idlib and northern Latakia.

Though the camps are only meters away from Turkey, Ankara closed the Atma border crossing in 2015 and allows only aid convoys through.

 Photo courtesy of Rami Ayoub.

Last month, residents’ anger over shortages and inadequate shelter boiled over into demonstrations amidst plummeting winter temperatures, reported pro-opposition Orient News.

“The overcrowding is immense, the lack of general services is real and present” and disease is “spreading,” Rami Ayoub, the director of the Al-Bustaan Foundation, one of the dozens of aid organizations active in Atma, tells Syria Direct’s Omaima al-Qasem.

The conditions are such that “many” camp residents are thinking about returning home in spite of the dangers, says Muhammad Adil al-Umuri, a citizen journalist and activist in northern Idlib.

“It is preferable to a life of humiliation in these camps,” says al-Umuri.

Q: How many people are in the Atma camps? How are living conditions there?

The overcrowding is immense, and the lack of general services is real and present, both of which have resulted in extensive issues like the spreading of disease. Flooding, particularly in the winter, has resulted in incidents of drowning as well as widespread destruction of parts of the camps.

Recent statistics show that the camps house nearly 11,000 families for whom there are around 8,000 tents and 4,100 caravans [simple, one-room metal structures resembling utility sheds]. Approximately 900 families do not have formal homes. There are 14 schools held in tents.

Recently, intense Russian shelling has caused a large number of displaced individuals to flee from the countrysides of southern Aleppo, Hama and southern Idlib. These individuals have erected tents in random fashion, some of which house more than one family. Many families were unable to secure housing and were forced to return to the places from which they had fled. Some families migrated to other villages in the [rebel-held] north.

 Photo courtesy of Rami Ayoub.

Q: What is the medical situation like in the camps?

There are only two clinics in the entirety of Atma, and they are simply unable to handle the high demand from the camps. In general, the two clinics see more than 80 patients daily. Most cases are for fever, sweating, coughing and severe cold because of the dropping temperatures and the dirtiness in the camps.

In the summer, Leishmaniasis [a parasitic disease, spread by sandflies, that can cause skin ulcers and damage internal organs] spread among a number of the children due to the unclean conditions and the abundance of sand flies. Many of the children between six months and two years old also lack proper milk and nutrition.

The elderly, for whom special care is a necessity, also suffer. Many struggle with moving inside the camps due to the cold as well as inflammation of their joints especially for those that have chronic diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure.

Q: How are people surviving?

With regard to aid, food and clothing, rations were distributed approximately a month ago. However, the distribution of provisions is unorganized. The Atma encampment comprises 54 sub-camps. Some of these sub-camps receive rations every month while others will go three—or even six—months without any aid.

With regard to how people secure food on a daily basis, a number of individuals work in the camps for organizations and relief teams. Some have found work in opening small stores. In special situations—for the elderly or people with special needs who don’t have caretakers—there are volunteer teams and active organizations in the camps that provide for these basic services.

Q: Given the limited resources provided, how are the people in the camps able to stay warm?

Some people receive heating apparatuses from different organizations or associations. However, for others, such provisions are not available in their aid packages. What’s more, aid will never reach a large number of the camps’ inhabitants. For these people, they will only have blankets to stay warm. These families are known in the camps as “proud families.” They are the poor families who will neither complain of their poverty nor queue for the various associations offering aid.

Muhammad Adil al-Umuri, a citizen journalist and activist living in northern Idlib province who has visited civilians in the camps and helped several aid organizations active in Atma conduct a recent study of conditions there. Here he gives some examples of what people told him about conditions in the camp.

Q: Can you describe some of the residents’ experiences?

Though systematic Russian airstrikes forced many into the camps, a large number of individuals were considering returning to their homes given the camps’ poor shelter and the general lack of provided support.

Umm Khitab, a resident of the Turkish border sub-camp colloquially named “Dove of the Forest,” said that the tents are tattered and threadbare. They neither beat back the heat of summer nor the cold of winter. The camps lack sanitation and their roads resemble trenches, particularly in the winter.

Umm Khitab also pointed to the lack of support from the camps’ humanitarian organizations. She added that she bought her tent for roughly SP40,000 (approximately $212), which serves as accommodation for her and her five children. She also rents the physical space for the tent for SP15,000 (approximately $80). She told me, if she had known beforehand of the terrible conditions in the camps, then she would have remained under fire in her home.

 Photo courtesy of Muhammad Adil al-Umuri.

In another example, regime bombing destroyed Abu Husayn’s home, so he left his village for the Atma camps. He noted that he finds life under constant bombardment and amidst destruction easier than sitting in the camps and waiting for aid, which hasn’t arrived in more than five months.

He pointed to the number of people that came to the camps with agencies and humanitarian organizations who take photos and leave, never to return again, without providing any support to the displaced people.

Abu Hussein further added that in his first five months in the camps, he spent everything that he had saved due to the absence of support there. He had heard that the camps had shelter, food, and medical supplies in abundance. However, according to his account, he and his children were considering returning to their home to sit on the ruins of it and await death, as it is preferable to a life of humiliation in these camps.

Omaima al-Qasem

Omaima was a law student when the Syrian uprising began. She fled to Jordan with her family in 2013 because of the security situation and was unable to complete her degree. In Jordan, she has provided psychosocial support for Syrian refugees. She has also worked for Radio Balad and Until When? magazine.

Samuel Kieke

Samuel Kieke was a 2014-2015 CASA I fellow in Amman, Jordan. He received his BA from the University of Texas at Austin in Arabic Language and Literature, Middle Eastern Studies, and International Relations and Global Studies.