In northeast Syria, a civilian exodus and a fast-moving aid response

‘I can see tears in their eyes and feel fear in their hearts.’

Syrian Arab and Kurdish civilians flee amid Turkish bombardment on Syria's northeastern town of Ras al-Ain in the Hasakeh province along the Turkish border on 9 October 2019.
Syrian Arab and Kurdish civilians flee amid Turkish bombardment on Syria's northeastern town of Ras al-Ain in the Hasakeh province along the Turkish border on 9 October 2019. (Delil Souleiman/AFP)

Tens of thousands of people fleeing the Turkish offensive in northeast Syria in a chaotic exodus are seeking emergency shelter in schools and homes, aid workers say, as they rush to provide them with food, water, and medical assistance.

With people escaping the air and ground offensive by car, truck, motorbike, or on foot, the number of people on the move is unclear. The UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, said Sunday that an estimated 150,000-160,000 people had left their homes, the Kurdish Red Crescent (KRC) said more than 190,000 people had taken flight, and Save the Children put the number at 210,000.

Most have fled Syria-Turkey border areas inwards into the provinces of Raqqa and Hassakeh, where aid workers are doing their best to provide for their immediate needs. At least one hospital at the centre of the chaos, in a small Hassakeh town called Tel Tamer, said it was facing a critical shortage of medicines and equipment. It has since reportedly seen the entrance of Syrian government troops.

Overall, the UN estimates that 2.2 million people live in parts of northeast Syria controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – the Kurdish-led militia that played a key role in fighting off the so-called Islamic State group, and is now battling the Turkish offensive, which began last Wednesday.

Turkey considers the SDF to be a terrorist group because of its connections to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a Turkey-based Kurdish separatist organisation.

Dr. Dilgesh Issa, a medical coordinator for the KRC, said Tel Tamer had been overwhelmed by the sudden arrival of more than 11,100 displaced people, including children whose parents had been killed in the violence. He said most of the new arrivals had come without any belongings, and many were injured.

“They have nothing, nothing at all,” said Issa, who spoke to The New Humanitarian from Tel Tamer on Monday morning. “They need food, blankets, as well as water.”

Meanwhile, the United States said over the weekend that it had ordered the remainder of its approximately 1,000 troops out of northern Syria (a smaller number had previously moved away from two border posts), and the SDF said it had reached a deal with the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to help thwart the Turkish advance. 

The United States had supported and funded the SDF in its fight against IS, but last week US President Donald Trump gave Turkey the go-ahead to enter northeast Syria, where Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said he wants to create a “safe zone” to resettle refugees and clear away “terrorist groups”

While the SDF runs much of Syria’s northeast and an assortment of rebel groups is still fighting Syrian government troops for much of the northwest, including Idlib province, forces loyal to al-Assad control most of the country after more than eight and a half years of war. 

Locals on the front line of response

Many Syrian aid workers – who were the bulk of those responding on the ground even before most internationals were evacuated from the northeast in the past few days – have themselves been hit hard by the conflict.

“Our [Syrian] staff have very much been affected,” said Sonia Kush, Syrian response director for the NGO Save the Children. “Many are displaced themselves; they’ve gone back to villages to live with their families, or the towns they’re originally from.”

For now, most aid groups with local staff present are still delivering aid. That includes Hassan, an aid worker with a foreign NGO in Hassakeh city, where the KRC said more than 100,000 civilians had sought refuge. “I can see tears in their eyes and feel fear in their hearts,” he said of the newly displaced people.

“Water and food are our priority now, in addition to blankets and safe shelters,” said Hassan, who asked that his last name not be published because he was not authorised to speak to the media. 

Issa, in Tel Tamer, said he was concerned that displaced people might become vulnerable to viruses and respiratory tract infections, with night-time temperatures dipping to 15 degrees Celsius at night, and colder months ahead. 

“We are suffering from very difficult conditions, and I cannot predict the diseases that will appear soon,” Issa said. “There are a lot of wounded; there is not enough room at the hospital, and we are running out of drugs.”

The rapidly changing situation in the northeast means that aid organisations are having to constantly re-evaluate their plans.

“It all depends on who is controlling [what]. If the Syrian government takes over Tel Tamer and moves into Hassakeh [city], it’s going to be quite difficult for our staff to engage in a response,” said Kush. “We are working on probably three different scenarios, and as events unfold we adapt our plans.”

Water woes

Getting safe drinking water to displaced people emerged as a major concern after a power line connected to a pumping station in the border town of Ras al-Ayn was reportedly hit on 9 and 10 October. 

OCHA says the station supplies water to 400,000 people in Hassakeh and the surrounding areas, including the 68,000-strong camp of al-Hol. In its latest update, the emergency body said an old water pumping station was being “reactivated” as a temporary stopgap, a dammed lake was being treated, and water was being trucked in to those who need it. 

The World Health Organisation said Sunday that damage to the station had increased the risk of infectious diseases.

Even before the northeast became Syria’s newest front line, the WHO said in a Sunday statement that acute diarrhoea and typhoid were a problem in northeast Syria: “Ongoing displacements, overcrowded living conditions, and limited access to safe water and sanitation services will likely lead to an increase in the number of people affected by water-borne diseases.”

A humanitarian source familiar with the situation on the ground told TNH that repairs were believed to be underway on Monday at the Ras al-Ayn station. They asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorised to speak to the media.

Hassan, in Hassakeh, said he was still concerned about a shortage of clean water. He noted that schools and other buildings had been converted to shelters almost overnight, so they didn’t necessarily have enough toilets or showers for the people staying in them.

Camp concerns

In addition to entering Tel Tamer, Syrian troops also reportedly headed into Ayn Issa in Raqqa province Monday, where shelling the day before hit a camp that had been home to some 13,000 people.

The SDF and local officials said hundreds of women and children affiliated with IS had escaped the camp, although neither the number nor the exact circumstances of what happened could be confirmed.

Save the Children said there had been 249 women and 700 children in an “annex” of the camp for people linked to IS and warned – in a Sunday statement – that “children of foreign nationals could now be lost in the chaos.”

Kush said on Monday that Save the Children had confirmed that a group of unaccompanied foreign children from the camp – believed to be orphans with at least one non-Iraqi or Syrian parent affiliated with IS – had been relocated to Raqqa. She said she had no further information about their whereabouts or wellbeing. On Sunday, OCHA said its partners had reported that “27 unaccompanied minors at the camp were safely evacuated” to Raqqa.

“We are urgently calling on governments to repatriate their citizens,” Kush added.

Additional reporting by Kawther Hamo

sb/as/ag

(TOP PHOTO: Syrian Arab and Kurdish civilians flee Turkish bombardment in Syria's northeastern border town of Ras al-Ayn, 9 October 2019.)

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