ATMA, Syria — From a distance, the tents look like an unfurled streamer, a wave of white filling the olive grove and crawling up the barren hillside on the Syrian-Turkish border, almost a work of environmental art.
This is Syria’s biggest camp for the internally displaced, and the flimsy tents shelter more than 20,000 people who have nowhere else to go.
In its poverty and dire shortages, its poor hygiene and lack of utilities, Atma’s white wave has become a symbol of the plight of the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who’ve fled the fighting in their country.
The United States has deferred to the United Nations in distributing food and other aid to Syria’s displaced, but the U.N. won’t enter any part of Syria without the government’s permission. That’s even more ironic here because Atma is directly across the border from Turkey, with no checkpoints or roadblocks. Yet U.N. agencies haven’t come even for an inspection.
“We know about Atma,” said Amanda Pitt, a spokeswoman for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, a little-known U.N. agency. “In order to get to these parts of northern Syria you have to cross the border,” she told McClatchy on Wednesday. “We have to work with the government of Syria in order to cross the border.”
Three hundred or more civilians, often with only the clothes on their back, drive up the winding, rutted road every day, traveling in the cargo bays of open trucks, which they hire for the trip. Then comes the letdown: There are no more tents, and the only place to sleep is in the small mosque.
Khairiah Hallakh, 28, arrived here last week with her family from Qastoun in Hama province, a village of 2,000 that troops loyal to President Bashar Assad have been bombarding with artillery and rocket fire as part of a little-reported government offensive to seize control of the Sahel al Ghab valley, where rebels move about freely.
“We fled because of the shelling. And after we left the house, a rocket hit it,” she recounted. “We didn’t even bring blankets. We picked up our children and fled,” she said. She said that 1,000 people from Qastoun were here.
Atma jars the senses of any visitor. Syrian jets routinely fly over it or the nearby villages, scaring everyone inside; they fear a repeat of a November incident, when jets reportedly bombed a nearby camp at the Bab al Hawa border crossing. The Atma clinic is in chaos: unheated, unlighted and with a threadbare supply of medicine and equipment. But the most surprising fact here is the near-complete absence of the international community.
Atma, which was set up with the help of Saudi money, is in humanitarian limbo, and no foreign government or international aid organization has taken responsibility for it, not nongovernmental charities and not the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Aid agency representatives say that’s because they’re distributing aid in areas that are under the government’s control and offering aid here without the approval of the Syrian government risks their programs elsewhere.
“We cannot do cross-border operations,” said Abeer Etefa of the World Food Program, a U.N. agency that’s charged with feeding those in such dire straits as people in the Atma camp. “We do not have the permission to go across the border from Turkey to deliver aid. Our only mode of sending is to go from inside Syria, from our warehouses in Damascus.”
U.S. aid officials say those restrictions haven’t prevented assistance from flowing to areas the rebels control, and other agencies say they routinely cross the border to provide assistance. In a news briefing this week, U.S. officials said that nearly half of all the aid was reaching residents of what they called contested areas, though they didn’t say which side controlled those areas. They said the United States even was providing flour to Aleppo, which had no bread for more than a month – enough to feed 210,000 people for the next five months. They wouldn’t say, however, whether they’d had to get the Syrian government’s permission first.
The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees sent 3,000 tents and 15,000 blankets to Azaz, about 60 miles northwest of here, which U.S. officials on Wednesday trumpeted as a breakthrough. But to reach Azaz, the U.N. had to fly the supplies into Latakia, an Assad stronghold, then truck them 127 miles to Azaz. Azaz, which houses the Bab al Salamah camp, lies directly over the border from the Turkish town of Kilis.
There’s been no such relief effort to Atma, where the tents and much of the aid come from private Saudi contributors, and, in emergencies, from the Turkish charity IHH, which has its main operation in Reyhanli, just across the border in Turkey.
Here there’s no electricity, no heat, not even fly sheets for the tents to protect them from rain. For newcomers, there’s one blanket for every four arrivals.
There are 50 toilets for 20,000 people, and human waste is all over the olive grove.
At the small makeshift clinic, the four volunteer doctors are so short of supplies that they cut tongue depressors in half to allow them to examine the 400 patients a day. Colds, diarrhea, lice and scabies are common.
“We need antibiotics, decongestants, anti-lice medicine,” said Dr. Yahya Ottuman, 50, who himself is a refugee from nearby Aleppo. “We need everything.”
This camp, named for the nearby village, houses just a drop in the ocean of Syria’s internally displaced, and this is another area where the international community has failed. The U.N. estimates the displaced at 2 million, but U.N. officials say the number is almost certainly well above that. Some nongovernmental organizations say it’s as many as 5 million.
. On the main road through the camp, at tent 13A, an elderly man beckoned to a reporter to stop. Mohammad Abdullah Ramadan, age 90, farmed wheat and potatoes in nearby Taftanaz, but he fled after a bombing raid in mid-January. “Airplanes destroyed our house,” he said. “I was at home. I had to be rescued from under the rubble.” He and his extended family of 30 arrived without any possessions.
He blames the regime for his plight: “Bashar Assad does not have a government. He has a gang. They have killed people, raped women. They are a gang. They are making a war against us.”
He had a message for Americans. “God told the followers of Abraham that if two sides are fighting, a third should try to reconcile them.,” he said. “As long as America has the greatest power on earth, it is the duty of America to stop the oppressors and help the oppressed. Until now we have seen nothing of America.” He said he couldn’t understand American inaction. “Russia is not stronger than America, but Russia is helping Assad.”
U.S. officials say the perception that American aid isn’t being distributed in Syria is incorrect. Anne Richard, the assistant secretary of state for refugee issues, said Wednesday that the United States wasn’t labeling the aid it was providing so as not to cause those who were distributing it any trouble.
A few hours after an American reporter’s visit, Mohamed Gharib, 43, the volunteer manager of the camp, was on the telephone. “We have an urgent problem. Can you help?” he asked the reporter, who was already back in Turkey. A woman had just given birth to a baby girl, and the camp needed clothes and an infant blanket. “We have nothing for the baby,” he said.
Four days later, infant Nada was doing well, as was her mother, Gharib said. No supplies had arrived, but two more babies – both boys – had. There was an even greater need for infant clothes.
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