“Tomorrow you’ll see things you’ve never seen, except in movies – prepare yourself.” – Lieutenant Ali, Free Syrian Army
Beyond the Turkish border post, before the vast stretches of Olive tree groves, upon a brown hill sits the Syrian refugee camp of Atmeh.
The camp itself was only started months ago when a few activists stumbled upon countless refugee families sleeping under the Idleb sky, with no shelter except for the rows of neatly ordered olive trees.
The refugees had fled the Assad regime onslaught and were refused entry into Turkey. They were stuck on Syrian side of border with nothing except their lives, and whatever belongings they could carry.
A few tents were initially purchased by activists to give them basic shelter. Months later, with winter approaching there are more than 11,000 people (~ 3,500 children) in the camp living in terrible conditions.
The camp is administered by activists – one of the camps key managers Hana, began her revolution activities working with the Aleppo Coordinating Committee until it became too dangerous for her to stay in her home town. She then came to Atmeh to continue to serve her people in this revolution. She along with activists from the Maram Foundation makeup the core of the camp’s administrators, supplemented by NGO reps and volunteers who help on a project by project basis (i.e. food delivery).
Atmeh camp is also protected by the Free Syrian Army – specifically the men under the command of Abu Laith, who hails from a small village near Taftanaz, Idleb. From ensuring camp security, maintaining order during tent/food distribution, settling individual gripes, to ensuring that smugglers and local hustlers don’t take advantage of the vulnerable refugees their presence ensures that the camp functions.
It is muddy, cold, wet. There is no heat or electricity barring the generator for the makeshift mosque in the blue tent (watch the Adthan, call to prayer) which also serves as a community gathering place. There are no hygienic toilets and water is trucked in. The makeshift lavatories make the worst NYC public shelter bathrooms look like 5 star accommodations.
There is one medical tent with limited medicines and services. While volunteer doctors do what they can to attend to the needs of the camp, they didn’t even have a functioning thermometer the first night I was there. There was an extremely ill women laying in the corner surrounded by loved ones behind a screen when I walked in the tent. One of the young FSA guards muttered to me, “she has typhoid”.
That evening the winds and rain were so strong, the medical tent, along with its few precious supplies blew away in the storm. Luckily, the typhoid patient had been evacuated minutes before.
There is no governmental support – all promises of aid from the West and Gulf have missed this corner of Syria (if they exist at all). Turkey does allow NGOs to deliver some aid from the Turkish side of the border – some tents have been provided (not very good ones) and everyday food trucks deliver two meals.
For breakfast, each family receives a small plastic bag which holds 2 small yogurt containers, bread and a fruit. And for dinner “imjaddara” is served – a staple meal made of rice & lentils (watch ‘dinner in Atmeh camp‘) . I asked a child who had her small bowl filled up how many people in her tent would she share her portion with. She replied “15” with a shrug, and walked away.
This camp, and the experiences of these people are part of the Assad regime campaign to collectively punish those who have disobeyed, and to tactically create a humanitarian disaster so revolutionaries must become relief workers – what they don’t realize is that this only strengthens the resolve of the refugees, activists, fighters and the children of a free Syria – One of the most common phrases uttered by all, young and old is “Yil3an Ro7ak abuHafez” (Damn your soul AbuHafez (aka Bashar Al-Assad).
Welcome to Atmeh Refugee Camp. Liberated Idleb Province. Home to 11,000 and part of the price of a Free Syria.