January 2013

Mohammed and Amoun al-Haider and their eight terrified children fled to this huge, unofficial Syrian refugee camp on the Turkish border after the regime shelled their village and hit their home over Christmas. It was a catastrophic move. A week after their arrival in what is supposed to be a sanctuary, six of the children suffered hideous deaths.

Late on New Year’s Day, while Mohammed had returned to their village in Idlib province to fetch possessions, Amoun fell asleep in their tent while breastfeeding her baby. A candle fell over. The canvas caught fire. Within seconds everything was in flames.

“It went up like benzine,” said Hassan al-Haider, a cousin, who emerged from an adjacent tent to see Amoun staggering out with a child in her arms and her clothes ablaze. He ran for water but by the time he returned the tent had gone and seven severely burnt children were lying in the embers.

Rashida, Asma, Heba, Arif, Aisha and Fatima, the eldest 14 and the youngest 2, perished barely 30 yards from the coiled razor wire that separated them from Turkey and safety. Amoun and two other children — Amina, 16, and Mahmoud, 12 — were rushed to a Turkish hospital in critical condition.

“What can I say? We left our homes to save the children from bombardment, and they die in a fire,” Hassan said as he stood amid the charred remains.

“Allah gives and Allah takes away. I pray he helps me through this tragedy,” muttered Mahmoud al-Haider, the children’s distraught grandfather.

More than 12,000 refugees live in Atmeh camp, 4,000 of them children under 12, and with each regime atrocity another wave of families arrives in battered old cars and trucks. They are the human flotsam of Syria’s ghastly and interminable war, the frightened, the penniless and the desperate who have fled the slaughter in their towns and villages but cannot enter Turkey because its relatively comfortable camps are already full.

Everyone at Atmeh has a terrible story to tell. An elderly couple arrived with a three-month-old granddaughter whose entire family had been killed by a mortar.

Another man recounted how his family had been driven from six villages in succession by regime shelling.

Mariam Oudi, 37, told how her husband and son were killed by a bomb in the rebel stronghold of Daraya, near Damascus, and she herself survived a massacre of civilians who had taken refuge in a mosque.

She wept as she told how the regime’s shabiha thugs locked two dozen young men in a side room and set it afire, stabbed a baby to death in her mother’s arms, and sliced open the stomach of a pregnant woman.

It is a measure of the horrors they have suffered that these refugees prefer Atmeh to their homes. The camp is an affront to humanity — an indictment of an international community that has done practically nothing to alleviate the misery of its inhabitants.

Atmeh in November was already dire. A crude breeze block clinic, two makeshift schools and a simple mosque have been erected since, and some tracks have been covered in gravel to keep them passable, but in almost every other way conditions have deteriorated even further with the onset of winter.

Heavy rains have turned the camp into a quagmire of red mud. A bitter wind whistles down from the snow-clad Turkish mountains to the north, and yesterday snow covered the camp itself. The 1,200 flimsy tents offer the refugees no protection from the bone-chilling cold. Nor do their filthy, ragged clothes, or the banks of earth they pile around the bases of their tents in a futile attempt to exclude the wind and rain.

Some 100 rudimentary toilets have been erected, but most are useless because the mud makes it impossible to connect them to sewerage pipes.

There is no electricity or running water. There is a stove for every ten tents, but no other source of heat or light, and nothing on which to cook or dry sodden clothes except for open fires. The refugees chop down trees in the surrounding olive groves for fuel. Tents and blankets regularly catch fire. A week before the al-Haider family died, two other infants perished in a blazing tent.

A doctor working for Hand in Hand for Syria, one of the handful of small foreign charities seeking to alleviate conditions in the camp, said that a seven-day-old girl died of cold last month. “It was terrible. It was so cold and wet her parents couldn’t keep her warm,” he said. He predicted more such deaths.

The camp depends on donations, but they are never enough, and middlemen steal supplies en route. Each refugee receives a small bread roll, a sachet of jam and five olives in the morning, and a hot dinner of potatoes, rice or soup. But sometimes there is no cooking gas, and often there is too little food to go round.

“They get enough to stay alive, but no more than that,” said Omar Zakour, a student who runs the camp’s primitive kitchen. “It pains me to give families food knowing it’s not enough.”

The refugees live ten or 12 to a tent. Many are suffering from bronchitis and other respiratory illnesses brought on by the cold. Many suffer from phobias, anxiety and depression induced by trauma. Diarrhoea is common among the children.

The clinic is short of most medicines, has no vaccines, and went a month without penicillin. Baby milk is scarce, and nappies are so rare that mothers use plastic bags.

“It’s horrendous,” said the Hand in Hand for Syria doctor, who asked not to be identified. “In the West even animals live in better conditions, and that’s the truth.”

Ziad Aror, the camp’s volunteer deputy manager, said that the refugees’ goal was simply to stay alive. “They fled their homes to escape death, but here it’s merely survival.”

Camp officials said they had received no aid from foreign governments or the big international NGOs except for 500 tents from the Turkish Red Crescent and 1,500 pairs of rubber boots from a Pakistani relief agency. “I appeal to the West to see us as human beings,” Mr Aror said. “I ask the people of the West to put pressure on their governments to help us and save us.”

Abu Baker, a Libyan-born volunteer from Brighton who helps in the camp, agreed. “What’s the world waiting for?” he asked. “We’re not asking for rockets or anti-aircraft missiles. These people are not fundamentalists. All we’re talking about is clothes, fuel for heating, and proper food.”

One other feature of the camp was striking. For all their wretchedness, I met not a single refugee who regretted the 22-month-old uprising or wanted it to stop before the regime is defeated — not even Mahmoud al-Haider, grandfather of the six dead children, or Hassan al-Haider, their cousin.

“Truth and justice must prevail,” Hassan declared. “This is our destiny. Allah makes us suffer like this to test us.”