Facing blistering heat and squalid conditions, scores of Outer Damascus displaced fall ill at Turkish-administered camp in Afrin

AMMAN: An outbreak of severe diarrhea at a Turkish-administered camp in Afrin housing displaced people from Outer Damascus has immobilized dozens of people over the past four days, medical personnel say, with most cases affecting children.

Medical professionals inside the Deir Ballut camp tell Syria Direct that a lack of clean drinking water and a bout of scorching temperatures in excess of 104 degrees Fahrenheit drove the wave of illnesses this week.

As camp residents continue to fall ill, staff say that medical supplies are dwindling and allege that Turkish authorities administering the camp are exacerbating the problem by restricting access from outside humanitarian organizations.

The camp, established in mid-April, houses displaced civilians from south Damascus and East Qalamoun, most of whom arrived after May 4 in evacuation deals between opposition factions and the Syrian government.  

Muhammad Nasser Ismail, a nurse displaced from south Damascus to Deir Ballut in April who volunteers with the Turkish Red Crescent, told Syria Direct on Wednesday that doctors in the camp treated more than 150 new cases of diarrhea in the past four days.

He said that medical personnel are facing a critical shortage of essential medicine such as Paracetamol, used to treat symptoms of severe diarrhea and dehydration, and have been dividing their insufficient stockpile into perilously small doses in an attempt to treat as many patients as possible.

Residents of the Deir Ballut camp in Afrin in May. Photo courtesy of Jisr TV.

Ten cases of dehydration among children were serious enough to warrant hospitalization, Ismail said. As the nearest full-time medical point lies five kilometers away from the camp in the Jandrees area, they were transported there by motorcycle.

“We treated them as emergency cases,” said the nurse, “then transferred them to the hospital.”

Residents in Deir Ballut say that unsanitary conditions are rampant within the camp. Abu Uday a-Rifai arrived at the Deir Ballut camp in mid-April, after being displaced from his home in Yalda, south Damascus. He says that a lack of clean, potable water is the hardest aspect of camp life and blames unsafe supplies on the wave of illness in recent days.

“Every day, one water tank is brought in but it doesn’t even last one hour,” said a-Rifai, leading residents to drink unsafe water from home-dug wells in the face of exhaustive heat. “The only official responsible for the camp is the Turkish government, and while charitable organizations have tried to intervene, the Turks don’t let them enter.”  

One source, who works for a Turkish humanitarian organization in Gaziantep, supported this claim by a-Rifai and others in the camp, saying that the Turkish government had denied his organization’s requests to enter and provide relief inside Deir Ballut. He requested anonymity, fearing his comments could jeopardize the organization’s work with refugees in Turkey.

“I tried personally to reach people inside the camp to take testimony from them on the state of the camp,” said the aid worker, but “working [in the camp] is limited to official institutions, while unofficial organizations are not allowed.”

Azad Osman, a public relations official for Afrin’s regional council that governs civilian life in the Turkish-occupied region, says that the camp’s administration is completely out of the hands of local government.

“We have no relation with the services inside the camp,” he said. “Responsibility lies principally with the Turkish side.”

After multiple attempts by phone and email, Syria Direct was unable to obtain comment from either Turkish officials or the Turkish Red Crescent that operates inside Deir Ballut.

The Afrin area town of Deir Ballut was captured by Turkish-backed forces in mid-April as part of Ankara’s Operation Olive Branch. Like other camps for displaced people located in the Turkish-controlled territories around formerly Kurdish-held Afrin, the Deir Ballut camp was established and continues to be administered directly by the Turkish government.

However, Deir Ballut is the most recently established camp, set up in mid-April to house thousands of civilians displaced primarily from south Damascus. Turkish-backed factions reportedly blocked the entry of these civilians when they initially tried to enter Afrin district in early May, before relenting and permitting their passage to the Deir Ballut camp.

Fadi Shubat, a media activist living inside the camp, says the settlement currently holds more than 7,000 residents and that aid has been slow to reach those living in Deir Ballut. Other sources put the number closer to 3,000. Syria Direct could not independently confirm the number of residents.

The activist says that many residents arrived at Deir Ballut already impoverished and in poor health after years of siege and bombardment in other areas of Syria. He says this has left residents particularly vulnerable to the squalid conditions there, and unable to purchase their own supplies in the face of paltry humanitarian aid.

“We suffer from a state of extreme poverty,” he told Syria Direct. “The humanitarian situation is very difficult and the water scarce.”

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011. Follow Ammar on Twitter: @Ammar_Hamou.

Barrett Limoges

Barrett Limoges is an investigative journalist who has reported from across the MENA region, his work appearing previously in Al Jazeera, Middle East Eye, PBS Newshour, Al-Monitor, Huffington Post and other publications. He studied journalism at the University of King's College and is currently pursuing a MA in Political Science at the American University of Beirut. Follow Barrett on Twitter: @barrett_limoges.

Media al-Kurdi

Media al-Kurdi is from the city of Qamishli in Al-Hasakah province. She relocated to Jordan in 2013 fleeing the war and the conditions in East Ghouta where she was residing. She studied English Literature and is trianing with Syria Direct because of her passion for journalism, and because she wanted to highlight voices overlooked inside of Syria.