Forgotten and encircled in Syria, Brandon Gray reports from a refugee camp in Northern Syria.
The refugee camp of 20,000, mostly children, on the Syrian side of the Turkish border north of Aleppo faces death on all sides. There is a grinding lack of humanitarian aid, a ruthless Assad regime offensive led by elite troops from Iran pushing a wave of new refugees toward the camp, and fundamentalist Islamic State fighters advancing towards them from the East with Russian T-72 tanks and American humvees captured from defeated Iraqi military units.
If the Islamic State captures the area, “they will cut my head [off]” says Yusuf, a young rebel fighter and media activist fresh from fighting them 40 km to the east of the camp. He had already lost eight friends and fellow fighters in Aleppo when their unit became encircled seven months ago by the Islamic State, then known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He escaped death only by a “miracle.” Now they have tanks, humvees, artillery, heavy machine guns — “they have everything” — and have captured Yusuf’s home town of al Bab, right next to Aleppo city. “They have come to conquer our country. To make an Islamic State, a Caliphate.” Since speaking with Yusuf, the Islamic State has launched attacks within Aleppo itself, killing several rebels.
The camp is a sprawling maze of about 300 white nylon tents that in the July heat “are like living in a bakery.” “I would rather suicide than live in them under this sun,” says Yusuf as we walk the dirt paths of the camp in the scorching afternoon. Children are everywhere, often fetching water with shabby plastic buckets from the small trucks that pass through. One child of eight fled with his family from Aleppo to the camp a year and a half ago after four cousins — all brothers — were killed by regime bombing. Unhappy with conditions in the camp, he readily agrees that aid from the West is needed by kids like him.
The refugees living in the camp tend to be the poorest of the millions of civilians displaced by the conflict. Even if they have the official travel papers, they lack the taxi fare to make it to the closest city in Turkey. Some of those without travel papers attempt the crossing illegally. There is a family now waiting for doctors to amputate their brother-in-law’s lower leg after he stepped on one of the many landmines that guard the frontier with Syria. At the border, bursts of large caliber machine gun fire can be heard in the direction of the Turkish guard towers. It could not be confirmed whether these were warning shots or lethal fire at those trying to cross illegally. At the border gate sits a bus covered with bullet holes and full of civilians, their forlorn faces betraying their expectations of moving farther north.
Fifty kilometers south the Assad regime forces have taken the Sheikh Najjar industrial area and now threaten to lay siege to the critically important city of Aleppo. Such ‘surrender or starve’ tactics were successful in finally capturing Homs (a major center of the rebellion against the Assad family’s four decades of authoritarian rule) and the Damascus suburbs where during months of artillery bombardment “nothing was allowed in but the shells,” said one former resident now living in Turkey.
Now in its fourth year, the rebellion against Assad began as largely peaceful protests but a series of bloody crackdowns pushed thousands to take up arms. The ensuing conflict has taken the lives of more than 160,000 people according to activists, and has drawn in jihadi fighters from around the world as well as regional forces allied with Assad, notably Hezbollah from Lebanon and Republican Guards from Iran.
Those without proper papers and money to cross into Turkey are now stranded between two hostile forces. Turkey only protects their border, not the camp. Defending the camp is up to the eight rebel brigades of the Islamic Front, a military coalition who worked with the Free Syrian Army to drive ISIS out of the province successfully earlier in the year. They now find themselves outgunned and losing ground to their ascendant enemies.
Those who remain in the Syrian camp receive one meal a day from Qatar, tents from Saudi Arabia, and nothing from the West. No Western NGOs or aid groups operate here and it is unlikely they will begin operating with the Islamic State and the Assad regime moving steadily closer.
The only Westerners coming into Syria from the north, aside from a handful of journalists, are those coming to convert to the brutal Islamism of ISIS and wage war on moderate local brigades — like the group that Yusuf and his friends belong to. For example, a few days ago one of these young men, from Sweden, came out of the border gate and was interrogated by Yusuf’s superiors. They became suspicious upon learning he was mentally unstable and had recently broken all ties with his family. His government was notified and took him into custody at the Turkish border after it became clear to them that he had arrived to wage jihad with the Islamic State.
There is no sign on the ground that any aid is arriving — many agencies from the West appear hamstrung by legal barriers and safety protocols. With the Islamic State kidnapping children en masse for indoctrination, the Assad regime moving to lay siege to another of Syria’s largest cities, and a meagre existence without proper meals or education in the camp, it is no surprise that the UN has called the situation one of the largest humanitarian crises since WWII. The situation has gone largely untreated by Western aid agencies. The futures for those stuck on the Syrian side of the border are grim if help fails to arrive.