Waves of internally displaced persons have increased the difficulties of everyday life for civilians in the north-west areas of Syria. Although a ceasefire was agreed in March, civilians in the region still face a new humanitarian crisis due to the coronavirus pandemic. To this has to be added spiralling food prices while children continue to sacrifice what’s left of their childhoods to try to get some work so that they can help feed entire families of orphans.
The tents in the overcrowded camps in Idlib filled up again after pro-Assad forces launched an offensive on the sole remaining opposition stronghold last December. Nearly one million Syrians were displaced as a result of continuous Russian-backed air strikes against civilian targets. This was the largest single displacement in nearly 10 years of Syria’s civil war, says the UN. The Syrian government claimed that the goal of its campaign was to rid the area of “terrorists”.
According to aid agencies and rescue workers, however, air strikes have destroyed dozens of hospitals, schools and other civilian infrastructure. They warn that Idlib’s 3 million people are at risk of an even bigger humanitarian crisis.
“The most heartbreaking thing I have seen,” said Ahmad Al-Qaddour, “is that fathers are crying because they can’t even get a carton of milk for their hungry children.” The director of the Jamiatul-Mizaan charity believes that Idlib could be the worst tragedy of the coronavirus crisis.
“People here cannot protect themselves from the coronavirus,” said Al-Qaddour. “Millions of people are living in overcrowded makeshift camps exposed to raw sewage and with no access to soap and water. There are no medical facilities, no ventilators and social distancing is impossible.”
The vast majority of the people displaced – at least 81 per cent – are women and children. Hit by months of air strikes on medical facilities, they are living in overcrowded camps and lack any kind of link with international health organisations. Al-Qaddour pointed out that healthcare workers also lack the necessary medicine and equipment needed to protect themselves from the virus, as well as the necessary tools to treat others with the disease.
He and his colleagues have been working in the camps amongst the poorest refugees providing milk, bread and medicines since 2011 and the start of the civil war. The 32 year old has often come face-to-face with the harsh realities of war and the devastation it has inflicted on thousands of innocent people, including his own friends and family. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of his work has been to see the body parts of women and children in homes bombed by the regime and its allies.
“All the people of Syria want and need is international protection. They have nowhere to live and want to return to their homes. Tents do not protect them from the heat of summer or the cold of winter; how can it protect them from this dangerous virus?”
His and other aid organisations are working round the clock to provide assistance to the refugees. “However, we cannot cater for so many victims; it’s an impossible task.”
With a harsh winter on the way, Al-Qaddour explained, many families are worried that they will not be able to make it through without aid. “There are thousands of cases of malnutrition, and thousands more of illness. The people are losing hope and losing their minds.”
The director of Little Hearts Foundation, agrees. Omar Omar is shocked at the lack of international attention to the situation in Idlib, for which Syria’s children are paying the heaviest price. He has seen children standing on the rubble of what used to be their schools, and saved others buried underneath piles of rubble.
“They ask me simple questions,” said Omar, “such as ‘Why are they bombing us?’ and ‘Does God love us?’ Even, ‘Is He on their side or ours?'”
Born and raised in Syria’s capital, Omar studied law at the University of Damascus before the war. He is now a humanitarian worker for an NGO that provides support and shelter to children and animals.
Although his family fled to Germany, Omar chose not to give in to what are extremely challenging conditions. “My old life came to an end when the bombs and bullets started flying.”
Families are currently living in bombed-out schools which they have transformed into makeshift homes, with some classrooms serving as kitchens. This has been seen in other parts of Syria as well.
“There are about 700 people in Idlib affected by coronavirus, but when I advise people in the camp about the preventive measures to take and warn them about masks, people tell me that they don’t care, because they are already in a life-threatening mess.”
Little Hearts Foundation helps refugees and has built a school for orphans. About 300 to 400 children stay and study there. “By supporting one school, you can put a smile on hundreds of faces. The best thing I can do in this short life is teach these orphans, it benefits me in many ways too. They are everything to me.”
Omar recalled the barrel bomb attack on a residential area in Armanaz, Idlib province, in January 2018. Fifteen children were killed. “Two years ago, I rescued a little girl from that attack. In this genocide, about 70 people were killed in total. I rescued a 10 year old child. It was a tragedy I’ll never forget and since then I have had only one goal, and that is to help people.”
Despite the conflict, Omar sees some hope for the future, not from the government or the international community, but from individuals around the world who donate regularly to help him look after the children and orphans. “The only real help is to stop the war. That’s what all the children want, and people are getting desperate now because winter is close.” That, he concluded, is the season when the people suffer the most. Such donations and support are needed now more than ever, but is the world listening?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.