Return to Atmeh
This was published by the Guardian.
This must be how the Palestinian camps began their slow transformation into towering townships. The Syrian families here are still living in canvas or plastic tents, but the little shops selling falafel and cola on the Atmeh camp’s ‘main street’ are now breeze block and corrugated iron constructions. And now nobody dares to talk about going home.
Atmeh camp, just inside Syria, hugs the Turkish border fence. Its population has risen in the last six months from 22,000 to almost 30,000. This newly-sprung settlement is one of very many – there are more than six million people displaced inside Syria, and over two million in neighbouring states. The camp’s population dwindles and swells according to the vicissitudes of battle. When the regime reconquered (and obliterated) the Khaldiyeh quarter of Homs last July, an additional 50 to 60 families a day arrived.
Six months ago, when I last visited, I was able to travel deep into liberated Syria – as far as Kafranbel in the south of Idlib province – with nothing to fear from the Free Army fighters manning checkpoints. This time I didn’t dare go as far as Atmeh village, sitting on the nearby hilltop, because it was occupied by the al-Qa’ida franchise the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In June the camp’s residents referred derisively to the mainly foreign jihadists as ‘the spicy crew’. Now they are a real threat – abducting and often murdering revolutionary activists, Free Army fighters, and journalists. This development contributes greatly to the gloom of the camp’s residents. (At the time of writing the Free Army and more mainstream Islamic battalions are finally striking back at ISIS, fighting and arresting its cadres.)
In the camp, the steaming vats of the Maram Foundation’s charity kitchen are cooking the same meal they were cooking six months ago: lentil soup. Children wait for lunch to be distributed with buckets in the red mud outside. Also on main street is a new clinic and one-room dentist (funded by the Syrian-American Medical Society). Dr. Haytham grins as he complains about the conditions. The roof leaks, and the recent snowstorm flooded his crowded space, destroying electrical equipment. As he served us tea, a boy called Mahmoud walked in to observe us, his face marked by post-treatment leshmaniasis scars (a resurgent disease caused by the sand flies which prosper in uncollected rubbish). Mahmoud, about five years old, seemed a pleasant child at first, but after a smiling photograph with one of our group his mood flipped, he violently pinched the hand of the man he’d been cuddling up to, and then took to whipping his older sister with a cable. “Nobody can control him,” somebody remarked. “He doesn’t have a father.”
Fatherless, husbandless, homeless… When I asked a man where he’d come from he changed the name of his town from Kafranboodeh to Kafr Mahdoomeh, ‘the Demolished Village’. I asked him why. “Because they haven’t left one house standing nor any animals in the fields. What will we ever return to? The whole town’s gone.”
Everyone in this sector was from Kafranboodeh. There’d been a tent fire here the previous night, leaving a nine-year-old girl badly burnt (photo). When I visited in the summer there were also tent fires, and a child was killed. The fires then were caused by candles, for light; now they are caused by makeshift stoves around which people huddle for warmth.
The Levantine winter is bitterly cold. Two nights before we arrived a child had frozen to death in the sub-zero temperature. A woman reminded me of this, and asked where the heaters were. When I told her I hadn’t come to deliver aid, she shrugged and smiled. “These conditions are forced upon us,” she said. “What can we do?” Some of the children at her side wore open-toed sandals in the mud. I shivered, meanwhile, in my boots and many layers.
Ahmad al-Shaikh, long-faced and bearded, was visiting from the nearby Bab al-Hawa camp. I’d seen that camp last time – a grim place where the tents are blue plastic and pitched on an undrained concrete surface. Now there are 3200 tents, Ahmad told me. He was wearing a second-hand jacket donated by a Kuwaiti, because he’d left his home with only the clothes on his back. “It’s a disaster in Bab al-Hawa. It’d be a crime to put animals in such an environment. We’re drowning in flood water, sewage and rats.”
One of my companions was the Syrian-American photographer Mohamad Ojjeh. Last June, while I was delivering storytelling workshops in the tents of the Return School, Mohamad taught football skills and took a lot of pictures. Now he bore a pile which he’d printed and framed, and the children and their mothers, when we found them, almost grabbed them in their excitement. They were thoughtful presents for people who no longer own even a mirror, whose children’s lives pass without the pictured landmarks of new school years or family parties.
Several times when we raised our cameras people murmured through polite smiles: “We’re fed up of pictures, frankly.” They’re almost ashamed of their earlier naivety, because they once believed that having their misery photographed would translate into an international rescue effort.
“There’s no hope left,” said a woman from Hass who in June had been quietly optimistic. “Everyone’s helping Assad and noone will help us. I don’t know if my daughters will ever go home.”
For the younger children, some of whom have been here for two years, camp life is all they remember. One boy had tied together an old olive oil container, some sticks and a sack to build a toy house – except he called it a tent. And who lives in the tent? I asked. “A mouse!”
Despite the refugees’ sense of abandonment, their hospitality remains as extreme as ever. Every family we met tried to make us drink tea. We eventually accepted ustaz Ahmad’s offer, and drank some glasses on a mat with his mother and about twenty lively children. Mayada (four years and one month old – she was very specific about it) recited the Quran for us. (photo)
Ahmad used to be headmaster of the Return School, where we’d worked (for the Karam Foundation’s Zeitouna programme) in June. Now (with ominous symbolism) the Return School has gone, replaced by the Wisdom School, where Ahmad teaches, which enjoys breezebock walls and corrugated iron roofing, but the sloping mud floor shifts when it rains. And of course there’s no heating. Ahmad, who last time was confident in the revolution’s imminent victory, tries to look on the bright side. “We do what we can for the kids. That way at least they’ll have benefitted a little from this period, whether the regime falls or not.”
As well as Wisdom, the Revolution House School is still going, and still the school with the Salafist curriculum offers its dubious benefits. But there are far too few places, and many children don’t go to school at all. One such is Abdur-Rahman, 13 years old, whose education ended at the age of eleven and a half, when Assad’s bombs closed his school in rural Hama. Now he helps his mother and does odd jobs in the camp. “It’s alright,” he assured me with an old man’s resignation. “My little brother goes to school. That’s enough.”
In some areas of Syria, Assad’s scorched earth policy has had a military objective – to drive out communities which provide succour to opposition fighters. In others (such as the Homs region, where Assad’s men have burnt the property registry), the strategy looks like a more permanent ethnic cleansing. The refugees know this, and they’re bitter about it. After Assad they blame his Iranian and Russian backers, and the Arabs who haven’t done enough, and also the West, which is fixated on Islamist radicalism instead of on the regime which creates the conditions in which extremism flourishes.
In 1948 about three quarters of a million Palestinians were driven from their homes. In the following decades the ripples of this expulsion unsettled the entire region and plunged two countries into open war. That’s the grim precedent. Today’s Syrian exodus is unfolding on a much greater scale.