A Deir Ballut resident assesses water damage to the camp after a storm on October 25. Photo courtesy of Rami al-Sayyed.
AMMAN: Akram* woke with a start to what sounded like the pitter-patter of raindrops on his canvas tent in northern Syria’s Deir Ballut displacement camp.
But within seconds, the 25-year-old was out the door to find a torrential downpour and a chaotic scene unfolding around him: rickety white tents blowing back and forth in the wind, puddles of muddy water filling dirt roads and the screams of women and children who, like him, had been jostled awake unexpectedly by the storm.
“People were going crazy,” he tells Syria Direct from Deir Ballut, a threadbare camp close to the Syrian-Turkish border in the rebel-held Afrin region of Aleppo province. “It’s hard to know what to do in a such a situation.”
Akram raced from tent to tent along with a group of others—in between flashes of lightning—to help disabled residents, children and the elderly to flee their makeshift homes as water seeped in from outside, soaking food, clothes and bedding within.
“Some people can’t move on their own,” says the former decorator, originally from the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in South Damascus. “We had to carry them out.”
“There was water everywhere.”
The storm over Deir Ballut struck late last month, and was the first of the season in Afrin. It was over relatively quickly—the rains lasted little more than an hour or two, Akram says, but the effects were nonetheless devastating for residents of the camp who were bussed to the northwest last spring with few of their belongings.
And in the days since last month’s storm, the scene has repeated itself with subsequent stints of cold and rain—the latest on Wednesday morning. In the aftermath of each, residents are left rushing to drain water from shelters, reset downed tarps and bring mattresses outside to dry in patches of sunlight.
Mattresses are laid out to dry on October 25. Photo courtesy of Rami al-Sayyed.
The inclement weather in Syria’s northwest has highlighted the vulnerabilities of those living in Deir Ballut camp, which is directly administered by the Turkish government and whose position in a valley makes it especially susceptible to flooding.
Representatives from Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD), the government agency responsible for the camp, and its partner organization, the Turkish Red Crescent, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
But residents meanwhile tell Syria Direct that the Turkish-led camp authorities and aid organizations have been largely unresponsive to the urgent need for winter supplies, even after the first major storm of the season made the stakes clear.
“The camp official tells you, ‘I can’t do anything about it,’ and points you to the administration,” resident Abu Essa claims. “And then the administration tells you, ‘I can’t offer anything right now’.”
“We’ve received nothing but blankets since the [first] storm,” the 25-year-old adds.
From siege to squalor
Difficult conditions are not new to Deir Ballut or its residents, most of whom were forcibly displaced from the once Islamic State-held Yarmouk camp and neighboring districts of the formerly rebel-held South Damascus suburbs last spring, in a series of surrender and evacuation deals. They joined smaller numbers of residents from East Qalamoun, another area near the capital where rebels gave up longstanding control earlier this year.
After evacuating largely impoverished areas plagued by years of siege and bombardment by the Syrian government and its allies, the displaced traveled hundreds of miles to find similarly squalid conditions waiting for them in Deir Ballut: no electrical grid, scarce water supplies and minimal access to health care.
Two camp residents make light of poor weather conditions with a homemade boat. Photo courtesy of Rami al-Sayyed.
Those conditions only worsened as the summer months brought scorching temperatures and bouts of illness—including diarrhea and dehydration—that drained already dwindling medical supplies and immobilized dozens of people.
Now, as winter approaches, needs are only becoming more acute for the 450 families estimated to live in Deir Ballut, which sits alongside another camp, Muhammadiyah, that houses hundreds of displaced people in comparable circumstances.
Abu Essa says the blankets that AFAD distributed—one per person—are far from enough for what will be the camp’s first winter since it was established in April, just after Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels swept through the isolated region and seized control from Kurdish-led forces in Ankara’s Operation Olive Branch offensive.
“One blanket isn’t sufficient inside a tent,” he tells Syria Direct. “I’m not exaggerating here—we need three blankets just to feel warm at night.”
Abu Essa says residents have asked camp officials for heaters and wood to burn, but that the answer was a firm “yok”—Turkish for “no.” He suspects it’s because camp authorities worry tents will catch fire.
So for now, he is focused on gathering the funds to make a trip to the nearest town—Jandrees—in order to buy some winter wear for his family. “We need something to keep us warm,” he says. “We left Yarmouk with just a few pieces of clothing for the summer.”
Others are simply fortifying the camp themselves—in the absence of similar efforts from those in charge—by placing stones around the edges of tents to keep them from being uprooted entirely, strengthening the structures with additional tarps and digging small canals in the crumbly earth to redirect water away from their possessions and toward the olive groves that skirt the camp.
Some residents even tried to construct low brick walls around their tents to prevent water from entering, but they faced another “yok” from camp authorities—building anything permanent in Deir Ballut is also forbidden, according to residents—and violators have reportedly been targeted in recent raids by local rebels and police.
Residents dig makeshift canals to drain water from Deir Ballut camp on October 25. Photo courtesy of Rami al-Sayyed.
With difficult health and humanitarian conditions hitting Deir Ballut residents regardless of the season, camp residents have repeatedly accused Turkish authorities of exacerbating systemic issues in the camp by restricting access to humanitarian organizations that are otherwise present in much of the rebel-held northwest.
More than 50 NGOs, UN agencies and other international organizations currently operate in northern Syria under the umbrella of the Camp Coordination and Camp Management Cluster (CCCM), which facilitates assistance to hundreds of sites in both Idlib and Aleppo provinces, according to UNOCHA spokesperson David Swanson.
Those sites include camps, informal settlements, reception centers and other places where displaced Syrians have taken shelter, such as schools and warehouses.
But Turkish-administered camps in Kurdish-majority Afrin—the area captured during Operation Olive Branch—are notably absent from the CCCM as well as recent assessments of the humanitarian situation in rebel-held areas of Syria, leaving Afrin somewhat of a gray zone for many humanitarian workers.
When asked about conditions in Deir Ballut, Swanson said OCHA doesn’t have “easy access” to the camp in order to assess needs, but he did not elaborate further.
At the same time, local Syrian officials in the region where Turkish influence is gradually expanding have been kept at bay.
“We have no relation with the services inside the camp,” Azad Othman, a member of Afrin’s Civil Council, told Syria Direct in June. “Responsibility lies principally with the Turkish side.”
Residents gather around a fire in Deir Ballut on November 7. Photo courtesy of Rami al-Sayyed.
‘No response from officials’
Tired of living at the mercy of shifting weather conditions and unresponsive authorities, Deir Ballut residents have become increasingly frustrated and desperate for action to be taken on their behalf.
Nearly every day in recent weeks, demonstrators in the camp have held protests calling for international assistance—some simply demanding help in leaving Deir Ballut, and Syria altogether.
"We thought our situation would improve when we left Yarmouk...but it’s only gotten worse,” one demonstrator says in a video posted to Facebook in late October. “We want to live like human beings.”
But Wissam Abu Sateef, member of a committee representing displaced Palestinian refugees in Deir Ballut, says he’s still seen no indication that change is coming anytime soon.
“There’s been no response from any official,” he says, adding that his committee relayed residents’ demands to Turkish authorities months ago.
Meanwhile, the Yarmouk-born Palestinian worries that the situation will only deteriorate as residents hunker down for a long winter.
“If we’re still in autumn, and [conditions] are like this,” he says, “then how will the coming months look?”
*Camp residents who spoke with Syria Direct requested that their full names be withheld in this report, fearing reprisals from local authorities for speaking to the media.