Historic snowstorm slows down region, fire breaks out in Zaatari


December 17, 2013

December 17, 2013

By Abdulrahman al-Masri and Kristen Gillespie

AMMAN: Syrians across the region are recovering from the devastating impact of one of the worst snowstorms in the Middle East’s recent history, Storm Alexa, which knocked out power and dumped snow and rain on a vulnerable refugee population.

Within blockaded areas of Syria, people faced the prospect of a long winter without heat or fuel.

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Islamic State in Iraq and a-Sham’s flag was planted in the snow. Photo courtesy of Twitter user @AJAlTamimi

“We have nothing to make it easier for us,” said Bebers al-Talawi, a well-known pro-opposition citizen journalist who remains behind the blockade in Homs city,sections of which have been encircled by regime forces with nothing allowed in or out for more than 500 days.

Homs residents are visiting the sites of freshly bombed buildings, collecting pieces of wood from the rubble, drying it out and using it as kindling, al-Talawi said.

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The Khalid bin Waleed Mosque in Homs was covered in snow.

A handful of children have also died from the cold, including an 18-month-old in an ad hoc south Lebanon refugee camp after their tent caught fire earlier this week. A diesel-fueled heater had caught fire in a nearby tent, AFP reported.

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The makeshift refugee camp in outside of the town of Arsal in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley saw heavy snow fall.

On Monday, in the Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan, a gas canister explosion killed two children, wounded four and sparked a fire.

The UNHCR has not yet commented, but camp spokesperson Aoife McDonnell told Syria Direct that the UN is working to distribute thermal blankets and heaters to help Syrians brave the cold.

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A gas canister sparked a fire in northern Jordan’s Zaatari camp. Photo courtesy of Aleppo Today.

“We have been able to give 90,000 high thermal blankets across the camp, and distributed 500,000 pieces of clothing,” McDonnell said.

“For many refugees crossing into Jordan, all they have with them is what they are wearing,” McDonnell said. “The refugees who are crossing – their clothes are wet from the rain, their shoes are wet from the rain and they are freezing.”

Residents inside Zaatari said the aid cannot come fast enough.

“The water is up to my knees,” said Mohammed Sulaiman, originally from Daraa province and now living in Zaatari. “It’s like a lake here” in the western sector of the camp, said the father of six.

The water is seeping in to Sulaiman’s tin caravan, usually propped just a few inches off the ground. Sulaiman is faring better than tens of thousands of camp residents still living in canvas tents that rest directly on the rocky desert ground.

“There is a lot of rain and it is freezing cold,” Mohammed Rashid, 43, a former soccer coach from Daraa province told Syria Direct from Zaatari. Some people whose tents have been flooded are staying with neighbors in the caravans, which resemble a storage container and are not equipped with heat.

The UNHCR’s McDonnell said teams are working around the clock to distribute aid. Despite the warning that snow was coming, it was not enough notice to adequately prepare, she said.

“It has taken us a few weeks to distribute everything,” McDonnell explained. “When you do a distribution in the camp, it takes quite a bit of time because it’s a huge amount of people – it’s a city.”

In Amman, life ground to a halt late last week when Storm Alexa blanketed the capital city with more than a foot of snow. On Tuesday, Syria Direct offices and others remained closed, as chaos on the roads meant long delays and a shortage of taxis.

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Snow remained on some Amman’s roads into Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Twitter user @AmerSweidan.

Downed trees and wet conditions left many residents without electricity as they dealt with freezing temperatures. On Friday night, a second leg of the storm dumped an additional foot of snow in some areas, with abandoned cars jamming major arteries and creating hours of traffic into Monday morning.

Elizabeth Parker-Magyar contributed reporting. 

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