In a forgotten corner of Syria, camp residents cling to life: ‘We need everything’

AMMAN: Umm Raed has a lot on her mind.

She doesn’t feel safe in the tent in Syria’s southwest Quneitra province that she, her husband and seven children have called home since fleeing Douma in East Ghouta last year. She worries about hunger. She worries about polluted water. She’s afraid for her children, who have been stung by scorpions. She worries about her husband, who has heart disease.

“We need everything,” Umm Raed told Syria Direct. “Water, medicine for my husband. I’m afraid for my children.”

Umm Raed is one of 3,500 displaced Syrians—most from Daraa and Outer Damascus—who are surrounded by rival parties and stranded in five hard-to-reach, ad-hoc camps in Syria’s small southwestern Quneitra province.

At this stage in the war, Quneitra is something of a forgotten province, with no major battles. There, crammed in between the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and Daraa province, thousands of Syrians have sought refuge in recent years, fleeing relentless air raids and ground fighting in neighboring provinces.

 A residence in the al-Burayqah camp in Quneitra province. Photo courtesy of Abu Said al-Jolani.

The majority of Quneitra province is held by Syrian rebel factions, including the Free Syrian Army, Ahrar a-Sham, Jaish al-Islam and Jabhat Fatah a-Sham (formerly known as Jabhat a-Nusra). In the north, the Syrian regime holds territory from which it regularly shells rebel positions. In the south lies territory held by an IS-linked faction.

Over the years, various Quneitra factions have battled the regime, and each other, for turf. Today, Quneitra is relatively quiet, spared for now from the intense Russian, American and regime air strikes across other parts of the country.

But Syrians hoping to find some corner of quiet in Quneitra are now saying that safety is more than shelter from bombings alone. Stuck in open-air tents hugging the demilitarized border of the Golan, they drink non-potable water. Those who can afford it walk long distances to buy bread. Engrossed in the challenges of everyday life, residents harbor a looming fear of bombardment or airstrikes hitting the shabby tents.

“These camps aren’t safe, they could be bombed at any moment,” Abu Raed al-Hari, an activist in rebel-held Quneitra told Syria Direct. “That’s why there are fewer people there as opposed to the Jordanian border.”

Last week, regime forces reportedly bombarded a rebel-held Quneitra village, just 200 meters away from the Burayqah camp which is home to 1,650 displaced Syrians.

“We’re afraid the camps could be bombed anytime, even while we’re sleeping,” said Abu Ghayath, a resident of Quneitra’s al-Rahmah camp, originally from the East Ghouta suburbs of Damascus. “There’s no more safety in my whole country.”

Most of Quneitra’s camps, in territory controlled by the FSA, lie in or adjacent to a narrow strip of territory dividing Syria proper from the disputed Golan Heights. The United Nations established the buffer zone in 1973, following a failed attempt by Syria to recapture the Golan Heights, the majority of which it lost to Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967.

The buffer zone, which runs 45 miles from Mount Hermon on Syria’s border with Lebanon down to the Jordanian border, was patrolled by the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) until 2014, when UNDOF forces withdrew to Israeli territory following attacks originating on the Syrian side of the border.

The demilitarized area may have been what led thousands of Syrians to land there, but its location is part of what makes it hard for humanitarian agencies to access.

 Children in the Quneitra’s al-Burayqah camp. Photo courtesy of Abu Said al-Jolani.

“Most of the local and international aid organizations have stopped sending food aid to the Quneitra countryside because of the ongoing battles in west Daraa between the FSA and Islamic State cells,” activist Abu Said al-Jolani told Syria Direct.

Since the battles began, this past March, “most of the roads between the two provinces have been cut, and are sometimes bombed,” he added.

The aid that does come consists primarily of non-food items like blankets and mattresses, as well as some medicine, according to al-Jolani.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that it reached 1,400 displaced people in Quneitra with “core relief items” in June.

Umm Raed told Syria Direct that the last aid she received was approximately three months ago. Camp residents can walk to buy food and other supplies from nearby towns, but most are extremely poor, having either no income or relying on money sent by relatives.

“Charitable associations and aid organizations rarely give aid to these camps,” activist Abu Raed told Syria Direct. A single local aid organization, the Injaz Foundation, can only provide aid for 400 residents of a single camp.

Amidst a severe need for aid, some rebels in Quneitra have facilitated the delivery of aid provided by an Israeli organization to displaced and impoverished residents in recent months, going against decades of tensions.

“Aid entered through one of the border crossings with the Golan, via the border strip with Israel,” and was brought in by rebels, an anonymous military source in the province told Syria Direct this past June after pictures of food aid with Hebrew script on it made the rounds on social media.

“The great need of the residents—in the camps and the rebel-held areas—drives us to accept this aid, so we don’t die of hunger,” Abu Abdullah, a Quneitra resident who received aid this past June told Syria Direct. He said the package he received contained baby formula, rice, sugar, tea, flour and other food supplies.

The opposition Provincial Council of Quneitra Province released a statement condemning the “distribution of aid packages from the Israeli enemy by traitorous collaborators.”

“Arabs and Muslims betrayed us and cut off the aid, what little aid there was,” Abu Abdullah told Syria Direct. “Nobody can accuse us of betrayal or collaboration with Israel.”

‘If somebody falls ill, they’ll die’

Most of Quneitra’s ad-hoc camps don’t have bathrooms or on-site water access. Camp residents buy water from privately owned wells or water trucks, but it isn’t fit to drink. Skin diseases and tuberculosis are reportedly spreading under the unsanitary, dangerous conditions.

“Sickness and disease have spread in the camps due to the lack of sanitation and healthcare,” Abdelrahman al-Khaled, a general physician at the Quneitra field hospital who treats displaced people on a daily basis told Syria Direct.

Every day the hospital receives about 20 cases of severe intestinal inflammation, al-Khaled said. “The main reason is that they are drinking unsanitary, unsterilized water.”

Living out in the open, displaced people and their children are in close contact with Quneitra’s wildlife, which includes the Deathstalker scorpion, one of the deadliest in the world. Left untreated, its sting is lethal in 1-10 percent of cases.

“There’ve been many cases of stings among residents and children,” Quneitra activist Abu Raed al-Hari told Syria Direct.The Injaz Foundation “provided anti-venom for scorpions and snakes,” but the foundation only supports the Karamah camp.

Each camp is approximately 500 meters from the closest medical facility, al-Khaled told Syria Direct. It’s about a five-minute walk, but in the case of a heart attack or other emergency, the distance can mean the difference between life and death, according to residents.

“If somebody falls ill, they’ll die by the time they get to a medical facility,” camp resident Abu Ghayath told Syria Direct.

If they do get to a hospital, the services provided are limited by a lack of external aid.

“We’re short on medicine and medical equipment,” said al-Khaled. “We can’t address this shortage from the Jordanian side,” after the border closed following a suicide attack in June. “Our role is limited, and based on what is provided to us.”

For Umm Raed, life in the Quneitra camps is a grinding, dangerous wait for the war in her country to end.

“Even though we’ve stayed in our country and refused to leave it, I feel defeated and depressed about what’s going on,” she told Syria Direct.

“Every day I pray that my homeland’s suffering will end.”

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

Faten Raja

Faten is originally from Damascus and was an energy engineering student when the revolution started. She couldn't continue her education because of the unstable situation at home and moved to Jordan in 2102. Since then she has volunteered with multiple organizations to keep active and help people. She wishes to be a journalist to spread the truth about Syria.

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.

Kristen Demilio

Kristen Gillespie Demilio has more than 10 years of experience reporting from the Middle East while based in Amman. She regularly contributed to news outlets including CBS News Radio, NPR, The Jerusalem Report and PBS and is a graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism as well as the Institut Français des Etudes Arabes in Damascus.