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With tents swept away by torrential rains, northern Syria’s displaced seek shelter in mosques, olive groves

Three rescuers in long blue raincoats cling tight to a rope as a brown-tinted current threatens to sweep them off their path.

AMMAN: Three rescuers in long blue raincoats cling tight to a rope as a brown-tinted current threatens to sweep them off their path.

Behind them, a smattering of makeshift homes sit huddled together, seemingly flooded by the torrent. And in the middle, a group of men stand stranded in the flash flood until they are guided through the water by rescue workers, holding on to one another’s waists and shoulders to avoid being swept away.

In countless other videos posted over the weekend from across northern Syria, people wrapped in blankets run for shelter from torrential downpours outside. Among them are hundreds of displaced families, their tents and belongings carried off by the flooding.

This past weekend saw some of the heaviest rains in months in northwestern Syria’s countryside, as well as in Kurdish-held areas some 200 kilometers further east, as displaced families living in makeshift shelters suffer the final pangs of one of the bitterest winters in years.

In rural Idlib province alone, local humanitarian groups reported that more than 500 camps have been damaged during the weekend’s downpour and ensuing floods.

Local aid workers and residents are now scrambling to cope with the aftermath of the storm, with thousands of people now reportedly left without shelter.

“We didn’t expect that we’d ever get this much water, that there would be this much damage,” Abu Munzer, director of the Sabireen displacement camp in rural northern Idlib, told Syria Direct on Tuesday.

The majority of residents in his camp are originally from rural Hama and Homs provinces, Abu Munzer said, and have been living on the outskirts of a town near the Turkish border for “more than seven years” since fleeing their homes due to the war.

“Their tents are already threadbare because they’ve been here for more than seven years. They already needed to be replaced,” he added.

Hussein Abu Shaher is among those who arrived to Sabireen some seven years ago, from his native Hama.

Since early Tuesday, he has been staying in a nearby mosque for shelter alongside his wife and three children, as the family’s mattresses and bedding were “drenched” in the flooding.

He hopes the mattresses can dry in time so that they can return to Sabireen camp. However, he  has not yet received any replacements, and worries that flooding could happen again if the weather turns.

“There isn’t one [aid] organization that we haven’t called on for help,” Abu Shaher told Syria Direct. “We need more than just food—our camp needs better roads, and a canal for water to run through so it doesn’t flood like this in the future.”

“If there had been better roads, we wouldn’t have all drowned,” he told Syria Direct from the mosque.

Others have simply slept on the ground in open farmland, according to local media activist Muhammad Dhaher, who visited some of the flooded camps in the storm’s aftermath.

He described thousands of families now left homeless, sleeping “between the olive trees.”

“They are in a tragic situation,” he added.

A flooded tent in Sarmada, near the Turkish border, on March 31. Photo courtesy of Maarat Media Center.

Um Ali, originally from rural northern Homs, said she was lucky to find shelter for her family in a friend’s tent nearby, in the Idlib province town of Sarmada.

“Her tent was damaged, but not as much as mine,” she told Syria Direct. “I’m staying with her until my blankets, which are covered in mud, dry out.”

The flooding has also swept away homes and cars in the country’s northeast, in areas of Hasakah province that are under the administration of majority-Kurdish authorities. There, more than a week of torrential rain and flooding has destroyed residents’ makeshift mud houses in a handful of rural villages.

Some 5,000 people from those villages are now displaced due to the storm, estimates Saad al-Ali, director of the Kurdish Red Crescent’s emergency response wing.

“Many of those families are now taking shelter in local schools,” he told Syria Direct.

‘Not enough services’

The rebel-held countryside of northwestern Syria is home to hundreds of makeshift camps set up by Syrians who fled their homes further south throughout the war—many of them administered by a combination of local authorities and NGOs operating on the ground.

The Turkish government also administers a number of official camps near the Syrian-Turkish border, where residents scrape by with little medicine and inadequate shelter.

Syria’s rural northwest, which includes the majority of Idlib province, as well as parts of neighboring Aleppo, Hama and Latakia provinces, forms the last bastion of rebel control in the country after several years of major advances by pro-government forces against other opposition pockets.

Those advances have seen the northwest’s population increase nearly threefold, after a series of  forcible surrender-and-evacuation deals imposed on formerly rebel-held areas of Syria saw hundreds of thousands of rebel fighters and civilians pack up their belongings and board buses northwards.

Some evacuees ended up in parts of rural Aleppo, now under Turkish military control. Others found themselves scattered across Idlib province, under the authority of rebel and hardline Islamist groups.

Some one million internally displaced Syrians now live in densely packed tent settlements that dot what was once a thinly populated expanse of countryside and farming villages.

Humanitarian aid for many of those displaced families has been made all the more difficult in recent months, following the province’s lightning takeover by hardline Islamist group Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS) in January.

Residents evacuate their waterlogged homes following heavy rains near Hasakah on March 30. Photo courtesy of Qamishli Today

Key international donors suspended—and in some limited cases, then re-instated—funding to key infrastructure, including medical facilities, fearing misuse of funds by the group.

HTS has also reportedly harassed and kidnapped local aid workers.

At the same time, hospitals and medical clinics have been routinely bombed by pro-government forces in recent years.

“There aren’t enough services to provide the displaced people with, especially now that their tents are damaged and need to be replaced,” Khaled Abdel Rahman, director of a rural Idlib aid organization, told Syria Direct.

And though first responders were able to rescue camp residents during the storms, thousands of displaced families are now left devastated in the aftermath, he said.

“People have lost many of their belongings.”

Additional reporting by Noura Hourani.

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