Caught in cycles of displacement, Syrians from Idlib province find uncertain shelter further north

Displaced Syrians enter Kafr Lusin in northern Idlib on Sunday. Photo by Aaref Watad/AFP.

AMMAN: When pro-government airstrikes hit the southern Idlib province town of al-Tah last month, Abu Ammar al-Idlibi and his family of eleven immediately ran for the fields.

Huddled together under a row of trees, it was only after nightfall—when the bombing finally calmed—that they could dart into the house for water, food and blankets before rushing back outside.

“The bombing was crazy,” Abu Ammar tells Syria Direct, asking that his real name be withheld for security reasons.

Abu Ammar’s family have been on the move ever since, rarely staying for more than a few days in one place. Bombs seem to follow wherever they go—on the last leg of their trip, from Hass in central Idlib province to Kafr Jallis further north, a wayward shell killed Abu Ammar’s daughter and niece, and paralyzed another of his daughters, as they were driving their car.

Now stranded in farmlands somewhere outside of Kafr Jallis, and with “no assistance and no charities distributing food to us,” Abu Ammar and his family are unsure where to go next.

This is their fifth stop since fleeing home.

Abu Ammar’s journey of displacement since the beginning of August. Map by Jodi Brignola.

Displacement has only continued. According to the UN, more than 30,000 people have fled their homes since the beginning of the month, as bombardments by pro-government forces appear to prepare for a possible aerial and ground offensive on rebel and hardline Islamist groups in Syria’s northwest.

Home to some three million Syrians, including around 1.4 million internally displaced people, Idlib has come to be known as a “dumping ground” for fighters and civilians forcibly evacuated northwards through the Syrian government’s strategy of besieging, bombarding and then emptying rebel-held territories across the country. However, displacement—often repeated over and over as bombardments approach and frontlines shift—is also a reality for many of the roughly 1.6 million Syrians native to the province. For some, it has been that way for years.

And yet the complex, concentric displacement described by Syrians on the run leave question marks about how well-prepared humanitarian organizations and local opposition-run authorities are ahead of a coming offensive.

‘Displaced yet again’

Awd al-Qaddour hasn’t been home in five years.

Originally from a-Tamanah in the rural southeast of Idlib province, al-Qaddour and his family have been on the move since 2013 when government bombing first forced them from their home.

By now, he talks about airstrikes in terms of routine—either you are lucky enough to see the news of a coming airstrike on the internet before it happens and take shelter, he says, or you find out when the rockets start falling around you.

“In that moment, you freeze,” he says.

Over the past five years of displacement, al-Qaddour has seen the same pattern repeat itself over and over again.

“If the bombing calms, you go back,” he says, “and then a day or two, or a week [later], the regime will return to make you live through the same moment all over again.”

Although families often flee short distances into the outlying countryside beyond their cities, towns and villages, more and more are seeking refuge in established displacement camps scattered along the Turkish border.

Displaced for the first time in 2011, Maamoun al-Idlibi and his family now live between their home in the western Idlib town of Kafr Oweid and Atma—a camp housing 130,000 people in the far northern corner of Idlib, right next to the imposing concrete wall that marks the border with Turkey.

Al-Idlibi also requested his real name be withheld for security reasons.

“Every time the bombing calms down we return to our village,” he says. “When it intensifies, we are displaced yet again.”

Al-Idlibi and his family have had a tent in Atma since 2013, and, as part of the original camp population, they receive monthly food baskets. As for the hundreds of families who were displaced to the camp the past month, he says, the situation is much worse.

“There is nothing for them—no baskets, no water, no tent,” he says.

Atma camp in September. Photo courtesy of Malik Abo Obayda for Syria Direct.

UN: ‘Plans in place’ for looming offensive

Formal displacement camps like the one in Atma are home to about half of the 30,000 people displaced by the recent escalation in pro-government bombardments across southern Idlib and neighboring northern Hama, according to the UN.

However, camp administrators and new arrivals are divided about just how prepared the camps are for a looming pro-government offensive.

According to a statement by the UN agency for humanitarian affairs OCHA, “plans are in place” to support more than 700,000 people expected to be displaced by the coming offensive.

Humanitarian aid—including food rations, shelter and medical supplies—is “already being positioned” in and around Idlib, the statement added.  

Local actors on the ground say they too are preparing for the fallout.

Abu Abd al-Aziz is spokesperson for the General Administration of IDP Issues, which operates under the umbrella of the Syrian Salvation Government—a governing body backed by hardline Islamist coalition Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham.

According to al-Aziz, camp administrators in northern Idlib have already prepared new campsites. When a new family arrives at a camp’s reception center, a statistics team assesses their needs and designates them a tent equipped with mattresses as well as an emergency food basket, he says.

Even so, he admits that the “response of the humanitarian organizations has been humble.”

Children in front of a tent in the Atma camp in September. Photo courtesy of Malik ِAbo Obayda for Syria Direct. 

Ahmad al-Asaad, spokesperson for Atma’s camp administration, also warns that the camp does not have the capacity to absorb thousands more people in the event of a widely anticipated pro-government offensive on the rebel-held province.

“There are no preparations,” he told Syria Direct on Monday, “no collective shelters, infrastructure or sanitation.”

When new families arrive in the camp, al-Asaad explains, it is the camp residents who gather together blankets and mattresses for them.

“The plan is there, but there are no organizations,” he adds.

New arrivals in Atma also say that aid has been limited. For some, it’s enough to make them consider the perilous journey across the border into Turkey.

Mustafa al-Abdo and his family arrived in Atma last week, fleeing a bombardment on their hometown of al-Janudia in the northwestern corner of the province.  

And yet for the first two days after arriving, the family were left to sleep in their car until camp administrators could find them a small tent.

“[It] is not worthy of the word ‘tent’,” al-Abdo balks.

The experience has left al-Abdo dreaming of taking his family to Turkey—easier said than done given the risks involved.

“[The Turkish army] fire at people who try to get close to the border,” he says.

A 764-kilometer long and two-meter high concrete wall equipped with barbed wire, high-tech surveillance technology and extensive border patrolling separates the two countries, making the trip to Turkey both expensive and dangerous.

Al-Abdo and his family are left with few other places to go.

“Al-Janudia might be under bombardment, but it’s still better than my situation in the camp now."

With reporting by Malik Abo Obayda on the ground in Atma, and additional reporting by Muhammad al-Hourani in Amman.

This report is part of Syria Direct's month-long coverage of internal displacement in Syria in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer here.

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali, originally from Daraa, had completed his first year studying Broadcast Journalism at Damascus University before leaving Syria in August 2012.

Tamer Trad Talal

Tamer is from Daraa province. He completed his first year of studies in Business Management and Public Relations at Damascus University, but fled to Jordan in 2012. He hopes for a bright future where Syria is a free society incorporating all religions and constituencies.

Ayman al-Shami

Ayman was born in Homs province. He was unable to finish his high school studies because of the war in Syria, and fled to Jordan in 2013. He enrolled at Syria Direct because he enjoys learning about journalism. He hopes that Syria will one day be a place for all Syrians.

Zeinab Hasan

Zeinab is from Daraa province and studies journalism. She is participating in the training at Syria Direct to develop her skills and become engaged with journalism as a field. She hopes to report to the world what is happening in her country, with the hope that Syria will someday be a place welcoming to all.

Alice Al Maleh

Alice Al Maleh holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from University of Copenhagen. She has studied Arabic independently since 2013 and most recently with Sijal Institute in 2017-2018.