AMMAN: Scores of displaced people are falling ill—and some dying—from preventable diseases such as tuberculosis and scabies in a Kurdish-run camp in northeastern Syria, doctors and activists told Syria Direct, as residents say they are barred by authorities from leaving the camp for treatment.
“Dozens” of people are suffering malnutrition, scabies, tuberculosis and other illnesses inside the Sidd displacement camp in rural southern Al-Hasakah province, Mohammad al-Khalif, a member of the monitoring group Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) told Syria Direct on Thursday. His organization, al-Khalif says, is documenting cases of illness and death within the camp via a network of contacts on the ground.
Exact numbers of the sick and dead are unavailable, he added, due to the difficulty of communicating with residents inside the camp.
What al-Khalif says he does know, however, is that most of the people impacted by the outbreaks are young children, whose weak immune systems cannot ward off the massive spread of bacteria amid unhygienic camp conditions. An unknown number of them have already died in recent weeks, after battling illnesses brought on by unclean food and drinking water, according to the limited information al-Khalif is able to gather from contacts inside the camp. Others simply died of malnutrition because of a lack of food supplies.
Sidd camp in October. Photo courtesy of Abdallah Zaher.
Little is definitively known about the Sidd camp, which sits within Kurdish territory in southern Hasakah province. Population estimates range from 5,000 to 40,000. The camp is under the authority of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a multi-ethnic yet majority-Kurdish coalition currently fighting a campaign to drive out the Islamic State from neighboring Deir e-Zor province to the immediate south.
The majority of Sidd’s thousands of residents are displaced families from rural, IS-held Deir e-Zor, and fled the ongoing battles there in recent weeks.
For them, Sidd is among the closest displacement camps to their hometowns and villages, and the first they come across as they flee north across the desert.
But in Sidd, they find a sense of relative safety, and little else.
Gathering reliable information from inside the camp is difficult. Residents and activists told Syria Direct in recent days of camp authorities “arresting” displaced people within Sidd suspected of sharing photos of camp conditions, or speaking to the media about their living situations.
The picture that does emerge, based on interviews with camp residents and activists with contacts inside Sidd, is of an underfunded camp without enough blankets, food, medicine and even bathrooms to service the thousands of displaced people living there—despite receiving indirect UN funding. Phone service and internet often cut off, for days at a time. Those who hope to move elsewhere, one resident told Syria Direct, must sign up for a waiting list, or find a sponsor within Kurdish territory.
“The situation in general here is garbage,” Abu Mu’ayyad, a displaced father inside the camp, told Syria Direct. He fled to Sidd with his family in recent weeks from their hometown of al-Qouriyah, which sits along the bank of the Euphrates River in eastern Deir e-Zor province.
Al-Qouriyah is located just 50 kilometers southeast of the provincial capital, and is situated along a deadly frontline between shrinking Islamic State territory and approaching Syrian regime forces, as the latter pushes its way southeast along the Euphrates River.
Earlier this month, suspected Russian or Syrian regime warplanes struck al-Qouriyah and nearby villages, killing as many as 67 civilians attempting to cross the river via an informal crossing, Syria Direct reported at the time.
The next day, Abu Mu’ayyad, his wife, daughter and extended family all fled town.
At least 100 kilometers north, in the Sidd camp, ِAbu Mu’ayyadِِِ found a temporary home devoid of basic hygiene and health supplies. “People here don’t have enough water to drink, let alone bathe,” he told Syria Direct from the camp. “There is medicine and first aid, but it isn’t distributed. So you see people with scabies, and other skin diseases.”
“Basically, if I had you sleep on the ground for a week without a clean blanket, and without a bathroom, you’d get sick too, right?”
Syria Direct reached out to multiple officials at the Kurdish Red Crescent, which is responsible for providing health and medical aid to displaced people within the Sidd camp. The sole response came from a nurse who worked for the Kurdish Red Crescent in Sidd until one month ago. He requested anonymity.
The nurse acknowledged that the medical and health situation in Sidd was “bad” during his stay there, though could not provide any statistics on the spread of diseases within the camp. Only one “medical center” existed within the Sidd camp, which provided only basic treatments, the nurse said.
Dr. Tariq, a member of the Kurdish Self-Administration’s health commision, also confirmed to Syria Direct that medical services in Sidd were “very bad.”
“I’ve been to the camp and tried to meet with advisors to the camp administration so I can explain the situation to them, and so the medical and humanitarian situation can improve, especially as winter approaches” the doctor said, withholding his last name. It was not immediately clear on Thursday whether camp administrators had begun taking steps to improve the situation.
A Syrian journalist with a pro-Kurdish news outlet who visited the camp last week told Syria Direct that the camp administration could not provide adequate medical services because the number of displaced people was simply “too huge.”
Families from rural Deir e-Zor province have scarce options when deciding to flee the battles currently being waged in their hometowns. Directly to their west is an empty expanse of desert still held by the Islamic State, followed by yet another expanse under regime control.
At least 250 families from the southern bank of the Euphrates fled south across hundreds of kilometers of open desert since the beginning of October, finally settling in the remote Rukban displacement camp along the Syrian-Jordanian border. There, they remain trapped in a barren corner of Syria, unable to move onward to Jordan due to a shuttered border, and afraid to resettle in surrounding regime territory.
Other families attempt an exit north via Kurdish territory in Al-Hasakah and Raqqa provinces, from which they hope to enter opposition-held northern Aleppo province just south of the Turkish border.
Among those aiming to reach northern Aleppo were Abu Mu’ayyad and his family. But today they remain trapped in the Sidd camp, where he says SDF authorities—wary of IS infiltration—are not permitting him to leave, despite signing his name on a list of those hoping to exit.
Still, Abu Mu’ayyad is lucky. Even those who arrive at the camp in poor medical condition have limited hope of being granted permission to exit for treatment in local hospitals, Mohammad al-Khalif, member of the Syrian Network for Human Rights said.
“Some of the deaths that we have recorded are of civilians who fled IS control, and were already sick when they arrived at the [Sidd] camp,” he told Syria Direct. “Their case worsened because of the bad health situation there, and they died as a result of not being provided the necessary treatment.”
“Contributing to this,” al-Khalif added, “are camp authorities forbidding patients to leave. Sometimes they do allow people in critical condition out, but by then it is already too late and the patient dies in the hospital.”
When Mohammad Issawi, a father of five from the Deir e-Zor town of Mayadeen, arrived in Sidd last month, his cousin—a woman in her 50’s—was already suffering the effects of kidney failure.
In formerly IS-held Mayadeen, despite a marked lack of medical supplies there, she was able to receive the necessary kidney dialysis treatment in order to stay alive. But upon arrival in Sidd, treatment was unavailable. The sole camp clinic, described by one source to Syria Direct as simply a “tent,” only provided the most basic health services.
“Even the very simplest needs such as tents, blankets and bathrooms are not available for everyone here,” Issawi told Syria Direct from the camp. “The camp administration isn’t listening to our requests—there are people sleeping outside, exposed to the elements, like prisoners.”
Without basic medicine, Issawi’s cousin rapidly deteriorated over the course of just several weeks. The family requested permission for her to leave the Sidd camp, Issawi said, so she could receive kidney dialysis at a nearby hospital.
But she was denied, for unknown reasons. Before long, she experienced total kidney failure, Issawi said.