AMMAN: Thousands of displaced Syrians living in ad-hoc camps throughout the north Aleppo countryside’s olive groves awoke to find themselves surrounded by water for the second straight day on Wednesday.
The early winter rains began late Monday evening. Hours later, the water, with no drainage to process it, flooded the low-lying camps and destroyed tents, foam mattresses and clothing. The rains weren’t particularly heavy, and they stopped on Tuesday, but the campsites sit on shallow ground. As the rains began, the water soon filled the groves.
An estimated 250,000 displaced live in nine camps near the Bab al-Salama border crossing with Turkey—roughly 40km north of Aleppo city—with an additional 70,000 people more than the same time last year due to Russia’s intervention in the war.
Moscow’s air campaign and accompanying regime ground advances across the Aleppo province heartland earlier this year sent tens of thousands of civilians fleeing towards the northern countryside, Syria Direct reported in February.
The vast majority from this wave of displacement found shelter in well-developed “formal camps” along Turkish-Syrian border. These internationally funded settlements are often well prepared for inclement weather given their weatherproofed housing.
A displaced child in the north Aleppo countryside on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Free Aleppo Provincial Council.
In contrast, more than 9,000 Syrians who fled Russia’s bombing campaigns took refuge in “informal camps,” living in tarp tents amid the northern countryside’s olive orchards. Without proper sewage and drainage in place, seasonal rains will often leave stagnant water for days in these camps as the reddish mud soaks through fabric tents.
Families living in ad-hoc camps “are the worst off,” Abu al-Bara, director of camp management in north Aleppo and an official of the opposition’s administration, told Syria Direct on Wednesday. “Relief organizations will only give aid to residents of these makeshift camps one time at most.”
Funding for the entire camp system is in jeopardy, he says.
“More and more organizations are telling us that they can’t give us any money,” al-Bara told Syria Direct. “No one understands the pain and misfortunes of displaced Syrians.”
With displaced Syrians coming from the eastern provinces of Deir e-Zor and Raqqa, and even Iraqis, arriving in the countryside every day, north Aleppo’s informal camps continue to expand despite the lack of resources.
But it is not clear how much longer the camps, some of which have been in place for five years, can remain a viable option without funding.
Employees complain of having to work “unpaid,” a spokesman for one of the north Aleppo displacement camps, told Syria Direct on Wednesday. International organizations “haven’t given us a thing,” said the spokesman, who asked to be referred to as Mohammad.
“We’re helpless, and we’re unable to cover any expenses out of pocket.”
Aftermath of flooding on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Free Aleppo Provincial Council.
In an attempt to reduce the population size of the camps, north Aleppo camp administrators are encouraging Syrians “to go back to their villages,” said camp administrator Abu al-Bara.
A majority of the camps’ residents come from Syria’s east, having fled the Islamic State.
In recent months, US-led coalition airstrikes have supported Kurdish-majority SDF forces in clearing the Islamic State out of surrounding towns across the Aleppo countryside.
By telling families to return to their homes, “we’re trying to lighten the enormous pressure on the camps,” al-Bara told Syria Direct.
For some displaced Syrians, going home is not an option, especially with the Islamic State still occupying large swaths of the northern Aleppo province.
The situation in the camps is “catastrophic and truly desperate,” Sajed, a displaced Syrian who lost his bed, blankets and other personal items as a result of the recent flooding, told Syria Direct on Wednesday. “But the homes in cities like Azaz that can actually keep you safe are prohibitively expensive.”
“There’s no place that we can go.”