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Maddy McGuigan / Gavel Media

The Syrian War on Nearly a Decade of Human Displacement

The tragic story of the displaced Syrian is best told from the sky. Satellite imagery of the Idlib province shows the landscape before and after its recent devastating bombardment. A September 2017 photo shows neat clusters of homes, defined by the shadow lines of their compound walls. The houses share their city blocks with the lush bundles of green trees, an aerial sign of life. 

A 2020 photograph of the same region reveals the gray and white dust of shattered masonry. The shadows are gone. The homes have been reduced to rubble and no longer cast the crisp black lines. There is a distinct lack of greenery. 

Another disturbing set of pictures shows the dramatic sprawling growth of an IDP (internally displaced persons) camp, an alarming depiction of the scope of human pain experienced in the province. The photographs are part of a larger project by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, Save the Children, and World Vision to analyze and understand the human displacement of the Syrian Crisis.

Will Christou, of Syria Direct, discusses the satellite analysis, “About one-third of all buildings in the analyzed areas of southern Idlib had been destroyed, while the two displacement camps examined grew by 100 and 177 percent since 2017, according to the study.” This big-picture view of the Syrian Crisis is helpful to understand its magnitude, and reports from the ground reveal the immense trauma experienced by individual Syrians.

People fleeing explosives find shelter in bombed-out buildings or under tarps in haphazard tent cities. Harsh winter temperatures chill them to their bones. Babies freeze to death as parents scramble to protect their children from multitudes of threats––bombs from above, firefights in the streets, hypothermia, and fires. Space heaters brought into poorly ventilated tents silently suffocate families who are only trying to maximize their warmth.

Al Jazeera reporter Linah Alsaafin talked with Mustafa Hamadi, an internally displaced person in Idlib province who lost family members to carbon monoxide poisoning.

“It must have been minus nine degrees Celsius (15.8 degrees Fahrenheit) that night. My brother knew better than to bring a gas heater into an enclosed space with no air vents, but what choice did he have?"

Syrian parents face constant life-and-death decisions. To flee does not guarantee safety, it only provides more options than huddling in place. Sometimes the place they choose to run to is the wrong one. On March 5, fifteen displaced civilians were killed by Russian bombs while trying to take shelter in a chicken farm. 

A nearby hospital worker Abedalrazzaq Zaqzooq described the carnage, "The most devastating image I saw with my own eyes was the arrival of two babies to the hospital. They were both under six months and were rescued from under the rubble but were pronounced dead at the hospital."

The chicken farm had appeared to be a place to find safety for their family, but these Syrian parents found only tragedy.

The war, in its ninth year, has caused the worst human displacement in the twenty-first century. The recent shelling of Idlib province has caused a massive spike in refugees, many of them repeatedly displaced. 

In a February 2020 statement from the United Nations, Under-Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock describes this surge, reporting, “We now believe 900,000 people have been displaced since 1 December, the vast majority women and children.”

Lowcock continues, elaborating on the ongoing suffering in Syria, “They are traumatized and forced to sleep outside in freezing temperatures because camps are full. Mothers burn plastic to keep children warm. Babies and small children are dying because of the cold.”

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), 5.6 million Syrian refugees are seeking shelter in other countries, and 6.6 million are displaced internally. While internally displaced Syrians struggle to find adequate shelter, essentials, and protection, the refugees in other nations find obstacles as well. 

Turkey, who has sheltered 3.5 million refugees, has said they can house no more, and as a result, opened their border for migrants to leave and head towards Greece. Many are attempting to move to Europe via water and land routes. This has resulted in the subsequent hardening of borders and restrictions on visas. 

The Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis tweeted in response to the influx of refugees, “The borders of Greece are the external borders of Europe. We will protect them… Once more, do not attempt to enter Greece illegally––you will be turned back.”

Refugees are told in Turkey that they may head west into Greece and be met with armed guards and tear gas, or face a perilous water crossing. They live in uncertainty, they do not know where they can go, and the international community doesn’t have an answer for them. Many countries ask them to turn back and go home, but their homes have been reduced to rubble. In neighboring countries, they find a rise in nativist sentiment and prohibitive borders. Syrians have found themselves in limbo, unsure of where to go, how they will feed their families, or how to stay warm through the night. For many, it remains unknown what the next day will bring. 

NPR's Jane Arraf talked with Etab Haddisi, a resident of Idlib, about the challenges and uncertainty she faces while raising her two sons in the war-torn country, ages 10 and 16 years old. 

“I want to cry. Forgive me. I want to cry. I try to bring them up in spite of all these difficulties in life. I'm living alone. It is not an easy thing. When the night is coming, I am afraid.”

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