ISTANBUL - Many of the tents here are sewn together by hand, and women cook on homemade stoves made out of rocks.
It looks like 100 years ago, but it is actually an ordinary day in northwestern Syria near the Turkish border. Umm Abdou, a mother of eight, came here a year ago. She says her family stayed in their village as long as possible, sleeping outside during the shelling after being displaced three other times.
“We saw death in front of our eyes,” she says. “The last time we fled, I was surprised we didn’t die.”
Death is still on her mind, however, as food aid is reduced, and the coronavirus pandemic reaches the area. If the virus becomes widespread, experts say, the mortality rate could be “drastically higher” here than almost anywhere else.
Northwestern Syria is awash with crowded displacement camps and more than 4.1 million people, after the biggest single exodus in Syria’s nearly decade-long conflict began in Idlib late last year.
Much of the area is now cut off from the government of President Bashar al-Assad and controlled by Turkey. People here fear that if or when the war ends, they may find themselves permanently displaced after they fled the last rebel stronghold in Syria.
Most families here rely almost entirely on food from aid trucks to survive; but, activists say this food is becoming a weapon in this war, with families again on the frontline, long after they fled.
“The bombs here may have stopped but we are entering a new time,” says Ahmad Khouja, a father of four. “We, as activists, call it ‘cold bombings.’ The warring parties are now fighting each other using food for civilians.”
United Nations resolution
Outside his nearby tent, Amar al-Khadoor, a father of four, says he fears his children will become the next victims. Al-Khadoor was attending university when the war began in 2011, but now the only work available at the camp is collecting trash or rocks to sell. These jobs pay about $1 every few days.
Most families, says al-Khadoor, need their monthly “food baskets” just so they do not starve.
“The only thing we have time to think about is how we will feed the children,” he says. “We cannot think even one week into the future.”
In early July, the United Nations Security Council was at a standstill over these baskets. Most countries wanted to renew aid packages for northwestern Syria through the Turkey-Syria border, but Russia and China vetoed the resolution several times.
Russia said the border entries into Syria were manned by unregulated militias, but the move was largely seen as support for Assad. If aid doesn’t get to the people of the north, it also won’t get to any remaining rebel factions.
Finally, they had a breakthrough when all of the countries agreed they would extend the aid program for a year, but only allow the aid to enter the region through one international border.
For displaced families, this move could be a disaster, according to rights groups. It could greatly reduce the amount of food and medicine that will reach families who are barely surviving, even with the help.
“Lives will be lost. Suffering will intensify,” reads a statement released by Mercy Corps, NGO Forum and the Syrian NGO Alliance, calling for the U.N. to reconvene and reopen all available borders for humanitarian aid and to “stop playing politics with people’s lives.”
Only days before the U.N. resolution, northwestern Syria took another blow. The coronavirus reached the isolated region, which has only one machine for testing and 95 ventilators, most of them already in use.
As of July 28, the region reported 30 positive results from 3,518 tests conducted so far. But doctors say if there is a widespread breakout here, containing it will be nearly impossible.
“If you tell people to stay ‘home’ inside tents, how will they feed themselves?” asks Dr. Mohammad Salem, of the Early Warning Alert and Response Network, who works in the camps. “If you say they must wash their hands, where do they get the water? People need soap. People need disinfectant.”
For now, local workers spray dirty tents and encourage children to wash their hands as often as they can. Schools have closed and some children sit idly near their tents, having been told not to run around in groups.
Others play in the dusty streets, some with masks, most of them without. In these camps, malnutrition is common, and many people already have untreated pre-existing conditions and injuries. Everyone could be at risk, but no one can really practice social distancing or heightened sanitation.
And for 12-year-old Yasser, the coronavirus seems to be just the next bad thing, and not even the worst thing.
“They were shelling our village and every bomb made our house shake,” Yasser says. “Then everyone ran from their houses at the same time. It was so crowded.”
Life in the camp is at least without bombs, he adds, but it’s definitely not home.
“I miss the trees in the village and eating figs from the trees,” Yasser ponders. “Here in the camps there are no trees at all.”
Shadi Turk contributed to this report from Idlib, Syria.