A new surge of Syrian refugees is swamping humanitarian aid agencies in Southern Turkey, where official refugee camps are full.
But the newcomers may be just the tip of the iceberg. In central Syria, civilians under attack by combat jets, tanks and artillery have fled towns and villages north of the city of Hama and thousands are on the move.
“What they do now, they burn everything ahead of them. They bomb this area with everything they’ve got,” says Hossan Hamadah, a Syrian-American from Texas.
He’s seen, first hand, the devastation of the new army offensive. He was in central Syria a few days ago to deliver bread and blankets to families on the run, but found only burned and abandoned houses.
“And I’m telling you, it’s a very, very weird feeling when you walk into a place and there’s not even a cat,” he says. “I just want to see something alive moving. Nothing.”
‘It Just Got Worse’
Some of the newly displaced are driving across the border to Turkey. At the Bab Al Hawa crossing, on the south western border, the cars are backed up for miles.
“The was a lot of shelling. We were hoping that it will be better but it just got worse,” says this husband and wife. They say they are farmers, but do not give their names.
They are anxious, after leaving home in central Syria, in the suburbs of Hama, waiting for six other members of the family further back in line. The bombing forced them out.
“We didn’t even have the courage to go to another house to visit neighbors.”
‘My House Is Broken’
There are as many as 200,000 people fleeing central Syria, heading north to rebel controlled areas, says Adeb Shishakly, head of the aid coordination unit, the ACU. This is the humanitarian wing of the Syrian National Coalition, the main opposition group. The ACU office is in a Turkish border town of Reyhanli. Shishakly is coordinating aid shipments for the displaced inside Syria, but large scale international aid has yet to reach these areas.
“No matter how much aid and food baskets, flour we are getting in — it’s not enough. The number of people trying to cross illegally increased dramatically.”
But there is no longer room in Turkish refugee camps.
“Past six days, heavy crossing to the Turkish areas,” says Shishakly, “so many people did it on their own, they rented a lot of wedding ball rooms here to house these people.”
There are five wedding halls Reyhanli, a southern Turkish town. All of the halls have been rented by Syrians and turned into private refugee camps where up to 400 are sheltered. Blue plastic sheets separate the living spaces, laundry is dried on the railings. Everyone tells a similar story about leaving Syria:
“Shelling, mortars, barrel bombs, air strikes — and my house is broken, ” says an 18-year-old named Zeinab, who does not give her last name.
‘The Unlucky Ones’
A Turkish sanitation truck comes once a week to remove the waste from the wedding hall decorated for celebrations, but now a place of human misery. Private Syrian aid groups deliver food baskets, individual donors from the Gulf drive the wounded to clinics and hospitals. But the humanitarian community is overwhelmed.
Still, says Hossan Hamadah, there is food and shelter for those who make it to Turkey.
“And these are the luckiest of ‘em all, these are the people that have money, that have money to pay for transportation to make it here,” he says. “They make it here, they are very lucky.”
Hamadah has seen the worst conditions, inside Syria, where some of the displaced have found shelter in caves, which are cold, dark and damp.
“I swear to God, if you see this, it breaks your heart, because it moves you back to tens of thousands of years ago,” he says. “People actually were taking mud to block the holes where the snakes come out. And they said, ‘We can’t sleep at night because we can hear them digging out.’ Those are the unlucky ones.”
Hamadah is collecting more aid to bring to the cave dwellers, but, he says, without a large scale operation to deliver flour and blankets to the newly displaced, desperation will drive thousands more to the Turkish border.