Fleeing the frontline, Marea’s poorest seek refuge in orchards

For the past two months, Marea residents in northern Aleppo province have found themselves with the misfortune of living on the frontline between the Islamic State and rebel-held territory.

Marea is essentially the gateway into Syria’s far north, particularly the Bab al-Salama border crossing with Turkey, 19 kilometers to Marea’s northwest.  The Islamic State’s relentless bombardment these past two months, including repeated car bombs driven into the town, have resulted in the independent Aleppo Province Council labeling the city a “disaster area” on September 4.

An estimated 90 percent of the town’s population of 50,000 has fled the daily bombardments and the Islamic State’s likely use of mustard gas on Marea, which Syria Direct’s partner Open Syria investigated earlier this month.

Many who fled Marea left on such short notice that they are now surviving “with only the clothes on their backs,” activist Khaled al-Khatib tells Syria Direct’s Alaa Nassar from Marea.

Residents who fled north found the camps on the Syrian side of the Turkish border already full, with rents in privately owned properties skyrocketing. Now, with no aid agencies on the ground, Marea’s poorest are living in open orchards.

“Half of the displaced are poor and can’t afford the rent of a house, so they put down mattresses in the orchards west of Marea and sleep there.”

Q: What happened in Marea, and why are the people of the area fleeing? Do you have any estimates of the number of displaced?

For about two months, IS has been trying to advance and take several villages around Marea, shelling these areas with different types ammunition, including chemical rounds. At the beginning of the month, IS got very close to the city of Marea and hit it with a barrage of rockets containing mustard gas, which is banned internationally.

This was the most violent attack on the city by IS so far, and led to approximately 50,000 people fleeing from their homes, or about 90 percent of the city’s population. They were afraid IS was going to take revenge on the city because, since the beginning of the conflict, it has been active in the revolution: Every family has a fighter with the FSA. I want to point out that the city has been hit by five suicide attacks in the last month, which killed at least 50 people.

Q: Where have residents fled to, and what are the conditions like there?

Half of the displaced are poor and can’t afford the rent of a house, so they put down mattresses in the orchards west of Marea and sleep there. The other half are spread out among [several nearby towns] where they are renting houses. There are others who went to the Akada and Salama camps at the border, but they are still sleeping outside because of the overcrowding at the camps.

The situation is tragic for all the displaced, because most of them left their houses with only the clothes on their backs, they didn’t bring anything with them since the most violent attack on the city [on September 1] happened at two in the morning.

Those who are sleeping outside in the orchards, their state of affairs is very sad. Some get shade among the trees and others from blankets they made into tents since there aren’t regular tents. Food is very limited, with only vegetables available in the neighboring villages. Food aid is practically non-existent. A campaign was started to gather donations and food for these families, but we haven’t received anything yet.

The situation isn’t better for those who went to the border camps near Akada and Salama camps; the camps can’t absorb more displaced families.

As for the families who went to the nearby towns and villages, their situation is a bit better. The local councils in these towns distributed mattresses and blankets to them, and made a gesture of food baskets with cans of beans, chickpeas, oil, and bulgur, but it is not enough and won’t meet the needs of all the displaced. 

 Displaced residents of Marea. courtesy of abbas qabbani.

Q: What about those who went to the nearby town of Azaz?

Local property owners in Azaz have begun taking advantage of the displaced and raising the rents on them, with some people charging $100 or more for a month’s rent [rent in the area is usually around $25]. The exception is that families who are related to some of the displaced have taken them in and given them what they need.

The Local Council for the area has not fully been doing its job, unfortunately, which has exacerbated the problem further. They made a very small symbolic gesture of food and only to some individuals they are related to.

You mentioned the people of Marea have fled before, following the Islamic State suicide attacks. Now they are fleeing again. Do you think they will still want to return to their village?

There is a tremendous desire among many of the residents to return to their houses in the city. Many have fled from, and returned to, the city before, but when the shelling got more severe, they fled to neighboring towns again. Returning is currently impossible, as the city is being hit with mortars and artillery every day, not to mention the repeated attempts from IS—approximately 70 so far—to breach the city and take it over. 

Have you personally had to flee the city because of IS’s advances?

When the shelling on Marea got worse on Sept. 1, I fled with my relatives, 22 people from about three families, to Haraytan. As soon as we got there, we rented a three-room house, although we were living in a seven-room house before in Marea.

I tried to provide my family with the necessities, then I left my brother, who is 15 years old, to take care of the family in my absence, since I was going to return to Marea to cover the events there given I am a citizen journalist. The situation is tragic, especially because most of the members of my family are children.

Junior reporter:

James Bowker

James Bowker graduated from Tufts University in 2013 with a double major in Arabic Language & Middle Eastern Studies. He has previously worked with the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) study-abroad program and as a remote translator for the Article 25 Right to Health campaign.