Having fled bombing, Syrian children learn to read in tent schools

By Khalil Ashawi

AZAZ, Syria (Reuters) – Syrian teacher Ahmad al Hilal listens to his young pupils sitting on a mat reciting the Arabic alphabet in a makeshift school in a tent on the outskirts of a sprawling refugee camp city along the Turkish border.

Many ran for their lives with their mothers under heavy aerial bombing by Syrian and Russian jets that paralyzed day-to-day life and damaged dozens of schools and hospitals.

Now, already enduring the difficult winter conditions in the camp, where many tents get flooded, the children huddle on the floor, learning how to read with scraps of paper and pencils.

“These kids suffer from illiteracy. They don’t read or write. They have no one to help them,” said Hilal, who teaches over 140 young Syrians in three tents scattered across several large overcrowded camps on the outskirts of the border town of Azaz.

Women and children form a majority of more than 350,000 people who have fled the renewed assault since December that has pushed deeper into the Syria’s opposition-run bastion in the northwest, according to the United Nations.

“We came here as refugees, there are no more schools because of the air strikes, so we haven’t been going to school but we’re studying in the camp here,” said 14-year-old pupil Khaled, who did not give a family name.

Hilal was himself uprooted from his town of Abu Dahur in Idlib province after the army, backed by pro-Iranian militias seized it.

“We bought some books and parts of the Koran and now teach them inside the camp,” said Hilal, 48, who was a teacher before the conflict that began almost nine years ago.

The U.N. children’s agency UNICEF has warned that the war will leave a generation who have never enrolled in school, having a devastating toll on education, with 7,000 schools destroyed and about 2 million children out of class.

At a nearby camp in al Bab, volunteers have converted a school bus into the Bus of Knowledge classroom.

Inside the decorated bus around 50 girls and boys as young as five take lessons in maths, life skills, Arabic and religion.

“Children are unable to go to the schools in the city. So we at the bus come to them with knowledge and provide them with the learning essentials such as reading and writing and basic mathematics,” said Mawiya Shular, 32, who fled a former rebel-held enclave in Homs three years ago.

“The feeling of being displaced gives me the motivation to work with these children. I want to get children out of their sense of alienation” said Shular, also a family counselor.

(Writing by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Alison Williams)

Turkish aid group says 120,000 fleeing attacks in Syria’s Idlib

Turkish aid group says 120,000 fleeing attacks in Syria’s Idlib
By Daren Butler

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – The number of Syrians fleeing attacks in the country’s northwestern Idlib province and heading toward Turkey has reached 120,000, a Turkish aid group said on Monday, adding it was setting up a camp for some of those uprooted.

Syrian and Russian forces have recently intensified their bombardment of targets in Idlib, which Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad has vowed to recapture, prompting a wave of refugees toward Turkey.

President Tayyip Erdogan said on Sunday Turkey cannot handle a fresh wave of migrants, warning that European countries will feel the impact of such an influx if violence in Syria’s northwest is not stopped.

“In the last week, the number of people fleeing from the southern regions (of Idlib) to the north because of the increasing attacks has reached 120,000,” said Selim Tosun, the Humanitarian Relief Foundation’s (IHH) media advisor in Syria.

Erdogan said on Sunday 80,000 people were currently on the move. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, said 40,000 civilians had been displaced since Thursday, the start of the latest military operation.

Many of the migrants fled the city of Maraat al-Numan, with some going to camps near the Turkish border, while others have gone to stay with relatives or to the areas of Afrin and Azaz near the Turkish border, the IHH’s Tosun said.

The IHH said it had begun distributing 20,000 packages of food prepared for the migrants between the city of Idlib and the town of Sarmada. It was also preparing a tent camp in the area of Killi, a village some 13 km (8 miles) from the Turkish border.

Tosun said the camp for families will have 500 tents and can expand.

Turkey currently hosts some 3.7 million displaced Syrians, the largest refugee population in the world, after 8-1/2 years of civil war in Syria. Ankara fears another wave from the Idlib region, where up to 3 million Syrians live in the last significant rebel-held swathe of territory.

A Turkish delegation was traveling to Moscow on Monday for talks which were expected to focus in part on Syria and which Erdogan had said would determine Turkey’s course of action in the region.

Turkey has backed Syrian rebels fighting to oust Assad in the war, while Russia and Iran support Assad’s forces.

(Additional reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Jonathan Spicer)

‘You have to fight’: For women refugees, finding work is doubly hard

By Claire Cozens

Geneva (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – In the 25 years since she was forced to leave her homeland, Congolese refugee Jacqueline Zandamela has built up her own fashion business and raised four children alone after she was widowed in 2001.

It has not been easy.

A housewife until she fled conflict in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo for Mozambique, Zandamela first had to learn Portuguese, then go through the long, bureaucratic process of applying for permission to work.

“It was just another reality. Hard. Far from my family,” the 52-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Wednesday on the sidelines of a United Nations conference on refugees.

“When I started to support my family through sewing, I hadn’t really thought of setting up a fashion studio.

“But because of the demand there was for my clothes, I took on some Mozambicans, and now we have 10 industrial sewing machines and four domestic ones and I work with 11 people.”

Finding work is not easy for any refugee, but women say they face particular challenges in accessing jobs, from sexism to the burden of caring for children and elderly relatives.

Many come from cultures in which women traditionally have not gone out to work, a problem compounded by issues such as domestic violence and child marriage, which disproportionately affect refugees as they grapple with poverty and trauma.

This week the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a U.S. aid agency, published a study that found women refugees also face significantly higher legal barriers to employment than men.

These range from laws that stop women entering certain industries to a failure to mandate equal pay for equal work in many countries that host high numbers of refugees. Some also restrict women’s right to work after marriage or childbirth.

Even in Germany, often cited as a model system, just 6% of refugee women work, compared to 53% of local women, according to the IRC.

Anila Noor, a Pakistani refugee in the Netherlands who campaigns for the rights of refugee women, said that for many, even the idea of going out to work was difficult.

“My mother thought I’d be married and that’s it. And then in Europe they suddenly ask, ‘what do you want to do?’. This is a new question for me,” she said.

“Every time, someone else is deciding for me, and now you’re asking what I want to do?”

GIG ECONOMY

IRC President David Miliband said the significant social and economic gains to be had from bringing more refugee women into the workforce meant it was essential to overcome those barriers.

“It’s not good enough just to say there are cultural barriers to refugees working,” he said while in Geneva for the Global Refugee Forum, a two-day conference of political, business and humanitarian leaders.

“It’s really important that we take advantage both of the traditional jobs, where you’ve got an employer, but also self-employment, home working, flexible working, and offer real opportunities to turn the gig economy into a lifeline for refugees.”

One of the key aims of this week’s U.N. gathering is to enable the more than 25 million people now living as refugees around the world to be more self-sufficient.

Dominique Hyde, director of external relations for the U.N. refugee agency, said women refugees were often the sole providers for their families.

To help them help themselves, host countries should be “providing shelter, providing education for the children so that they don’t need to be worrying about that”, she said, adding that there was a need for language and skills training.

With the average refugee now staying outside their homeland for more than a decade, aid agencies say more and more will need such assistance.

Today, with all her four children grown up and either in work or higher education, Zandamela combines running a successful fashion business with helping other refugee women navigate the challenges she once faced.

“There are refugees who come to me and I help them with translation. When they come (to Mozambique) they don’t know the language,” she said.

“And when they come to me I tell them, you mustn’t just sit back, you have to fight.”

(Reporting by Claire Cozens @clairecoz, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

‘People are not animals’; stranded migrants freeze in Bosnian fores

‘People are not animals’; stranded migrants freeze in Bosnian forest
By Dado Ruvic

VUCJAK, Bosnia (Reuters) – Hundreds of migrants and refugees stuck in a makeshift camp in a Bosnian forest are struggling to survive in subzero temperatures as snow weighs down on their tents, spurring fears that some may die unless they are resettled soon.

A senior human rights envoy who visited the camp on Tuesday demanded its immediate closure, though a Bosnian government minister said it could take up to a month to move the refugees to a more secure location.

“People are people, not animals,” said Mauloddin, 24, an Afghan who set off for Europe 3-1/2 years ago. “You see, … it’s very cold weather, (there is) no sleeping, no food.”

Mauloddin is among some 600 migrants from the Middle East and Asia stuck in the camp at Vucjak, a former landfill site about 8 km (5 miles) from the Croatian border, because Bosnian authorities cannot agree on where to settle them.

Bosnia is struggling to deal with an upsurge in migrant numbers since Croatia, Hungary and Slovenia closed their borders against undocumented immigration. The migrants hope to get to wealthy western Europe and find work there.

Some lacked warm clothes and were wrapped in blankets, some traipsed through the snow and mud in flip-flops to collect firewood. One man brushed snow from the roof of his tent to prevent it collapsing.

“Vucjak must be shut down today,” said Dunja Mijatovic, commissioner for human rights at the Council of Europe. “Otherwise the people here will start dying.”

Mijatovic added that as a Bosnian citizen whose country generated its own stream of refugees during the wars that tore apart Yugoslavia in the 1990s she was “ashamed” of the conditions in the camp, saying they were “not for human beings”.

Aid agencies have long urged the authorities to close the camp, which lacks running water and electricity. The forest is strewn with landmines left over from the wars of the 1990s. [L8N27G8O3]

“THEY STRIKE US, THEY HIT US”

Security Minister Dragan Mektic said on Tuesday the migrants would be moved to a location near the capital Sarajevo in the next month.

Until then, said Selam Midzic, head of the Red Cross from the nearby town of Bihac, the migrants will have to endure the freezing cold and many will fall sick. The Red Cross is the only organization providing food and medicines to the migrants.

Commenting on their plight, Rezwanullay Niazy, a 24-year-old Afghan, said: “We spent all our money… We came close to Europe, and now they closed the Croatian and Slovenian borders. When we go there they strike us, they hit us.”

Human rights groups have accused Croatian police of using violence to push the migrants back over the border into Bosnia, a charge denied by Croatian authorities.

“They (the Europeans) really don’t want refugees to come to their countries,” said Niazy.

(Reporting by Dado Ruvic and Reuters TV, writing by Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Greece moves more migrants to mainland, warns others to stay away

Greece moves more migrants to mainland, warns others to stay away
By Angeliki Koutantou

ATHENS (Reuters) – Greek authorities moved more refugees and migrants from overcrowded island camps to the mainland on Tuesday as the government, facing a surge in new arrivals, said it would take a hardline on those who did not qualify for asylum.

Nearly 700 migrants and refugees arrived in the port of Elefsina near Athens from the island of Samos, officials said. Earlier, 120 people arrived from Lesbos at Greece’s main port, Pireaus.

Greece is struggling with the biggest resurgence in refugee and migrant flows across the Aegean Sea from Turkey since 2015, when more than a million crossed into Europe, many of them via Greece.

The islands, which are closest to Turkey, have been struggling under the influx, with some 33,700 refugees and migrants in overcrowded camps, according to the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR.

In late September, a woman died in a fire in a tent in a camp on Lesbos, while a fire in an overcrowded camp in Samos forced hundreds of people into the streets this month.

“Our focus was mainly on Samos because we want things there to calm down,” migration ministry secretary Manos Logothetis told Reuters.

LOSING MONEY

Greece has adopted a tougher stance on migration since the conservative government led by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis came to power in July.

Mitsotakis told his EU counterparts last week that the union must review asylum rules and warned economic migrants that they will be returned to Turkey if they are not entitled to asylum, government spokesman Stelios Petsas said on Tuesday.

“If they give their money to traffickers hoping to permanently cross into Europe, they will only lose it,” Petsas told reporters. “Even if they reach Greece, since they are not entitled to asylum, they will return to Turkey.”

“They can no longer come to Greece and apply for asylum hoping that they stay here forever, as it was the case with the previous government,” Petsas said, referring to former prime minister Alexis Tsipras’ left-led administration.

More than 12,000 people arrived in Greece in September, the highest level in the three-and-a-half years since the EU agreed a deal with Turkey to seal the Aegean corridor to Europe.

Athens has announced plans to deport 10,000 people who do not qualify for asylum by the end of next year.

Logothetis said up to 300 more people would be leaving Samos this week, and up to 2,000 from all outlying islands next week. Greece aims to move up to 20,000 off the islands by the end of the year, he said.

(Reporting by Angeliki Koutantou; writing by Renee Maltezou; editing by Angus MacSwan)

Turkish assault in Syria weakens Iraq Kurds, strengthens regional powers

Iraqi Kurds protest the Turkish offensive against Syria during a demonstration outside the United Nations building in Erbil, Iraq October 12, 2019.REUTERS/Azad Lashkari

Turkish assault in Syria weakens Iraq Kurds, strengthens regional powers
By Raya Jalabi and Ali Sultan

ERBIL, Iraq (Reuters) – A Turkish border offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces will further weaken Iraq’s divided Kurds next door and embolden regional rivals who have one thing in common – they want no Kurdish state.

The assault, following an American troop pullback that in effect gave Turkey a U.S. green light, alarmed inhabitants of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region. It ended Syrian Kurdish rule of “Rojava” – their name for northeastern Syria – and left Iraqi Kurdistan as the Kurds’ only self-governed land.

Outraged that their Syrian kin were betrayed by another U.S. policy decision, protesters in Iraqi Kurdish cities burned Turkish flags and authorities promised to help refugees fleeing.

“The world has failed the Kurds,” said Bayan Ahmed, a 20-year-old student.

“That’s our story – we’re always betrayed.”

But a more cautious reaction from Iraqi Kurdish leaders who did not condemn neighboring Turkey by name showed Kurdistan’s economic and political reliance on the same country that is battling their Syrian brethren over the border.

It also masked the underlying tensions between the two main parties in Iraq’s Kurdistan — the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan PUK, a close ally of Iran, and the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which enjoys close relations with Ankara.

As Turkey advances on Kurdish militants, Syria’s government retakes Kurdish areas and Iran-aligned militias secure regional supply lines, Iraqi Kurdish dependence on regional powers will only grow, according to Kurdish officials and analysts.

“Kurds are caught between powerful states all working against them, Turkey, Syria, Iran, even Iraq. The Kurdish government’s worried. It’s the only one left,” said Shirwan Mirza, a Kurdish lawmaker in the Iraqi parliament.

“To preserve itself, it might look to closer cooperation with Baghdad – but not as first-class citizens.”

Iraqi Kurds are still reeling from a failed independence bid in 2017. They say the attempt was wrecked by U.S. criticism of their referendum on full Kurdish self-rule, a stance they see as a betrayal by Washington.

The U.S. criticism, plus Turkish and Iranian condemnation, paved the way for Iraqi government forces to retake areas under Kurdish control since Islamic State seized vast parts of Iraq.

Bilal Wahab, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the two Kurdish experiments in self-government in Syria and Iraq “suffered a nosebleed” in the past two years.

Wahab questioned whether the setbacks were due to bad timing, lack of political nous, or “a bigger picture where Kurds will always end up with the shorter end of the stick regardless.”

FAILED INDEPENDENCE, DIVISIONS

Kurds have sought an independent state for almost a century, when the Ottoman Empire crumbled and left Kurdish-populated territory scattered between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

But moves by regional powers to keep the ethnic group of 30 million in check, combined with internal divisions, have long thwarted efforts towards independence.

In northern Iraq, the Kurds got their first self-run territory in 1991, after the Gulf War.

But since then, they have had to balance their ambitions for full independence with the threat of a backlash from their neighbors and the reluctance of Baghdad to redraw borders.

Syria’s Kurdish experiment is younger. The war that began in 2011 allowed Kurds in the northeast to rule themselves as President Bashar al-Assad was busy fighting rebels in the west.

U.S. forces partnered with the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia to defeat Islamic State, providing a powerful Western ally Kurds hoped would support shaky de-facto self-administration.

That ended last week as U.S. troops withdrew and Turkey began its incursion. Ankara sees the YPG as terrorists and an extension of its home-grown PKK militant group.

Desperate to stave off the offensive, the YPG made a deal with Assad to allow his forces to defend them, giving back territorial control to Damascus for the first time in years.

Assad’s ally Iran is also set to gain. Iraqi paramilitary groups backed by Iran on the Iraq-Syria border will likely help Assad secure control, strengthening their own supply lines along a corridor of territory from Tehran to Beirut.

In this environment the Kurdish regional Government (KRG) is not in a position to rush to the aid of Syrian Kurds, and nor will it want to, for fear of upsetting regional ties with Iran and Turkey, according to Kurdish politicians and analysts.

In Iraq, this could push Kurdish authorities to work closer with the central government, they say. The 2017 independence move left the Kurds weaker in their relations with Baghdad.

Maintaining ties with Turkey will also be crucial.

“The KDP has become a part of (Turkish President Tayyip) Erdogan’s plan … they have interests in keeping up ties, among them oil and gas contracts,” said Bezdar Babkar of the Kurdish opposition Change Movement.

The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) relies on Turkish pipelines to export oil. Links between the ruling KDP and Turkey go beyond the economy, including a shared enemy in the PKK. Turkey regularly bombs PKK bases in northern Iraqi Kurdistan.

KRG help to Syrians will therefore be limited to taking in some refugees, which it has started doing. KDP rival the PUK, which controls areas near the Iran border, has closer ties with the PKK and has issued stronger condemnation of Turkey.

The two Kurdish parties fought a civil war in the 1990s. More recently they have taken to sharing power, but competing regional loyalties, rivalry and strains govern the relationship.

(Reporting by Raya Jalabi and Ali Sultan in Sulaimaniya; Writing by John Davison; Editing by Samia Nakhoul, William Maclean)

Turkey plans to return one million Syrians, warns of new migrant wave in Europe

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a meeting of his ruling AK Party in Ankara, Turkey, September 5, 2019. Murat Kula/Presidential Press Office/Handout via REUTERS

By Nevzat Devranoglu and Tuvan Gumrukcu

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey plans to resettle 1 million refugees in northern Syria and may reopen the route for migrants into Europe if it does not receive adequate international support for the plan, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday.

Turkey, which hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, controls parts of north Syria where it says 350,000 Syrians have already returned. It is setting up a “safe zone” with the United States in the northeast where Erdogan said many more could be moved.

“Our goal is for at least one million of our Syrian brothers to return to the safe zone we will form along our 450 km border,” Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara.

The comments come as Turkey mounts pressure on Washington for further concessions on the depth and oversight of the planned safe zone in the northeast, and as it comes under increasing pressure in Syria’s northwest Idlib region where a Russian-backed government offensive has pressed north.

Only a small minority of Syrians in Turkey are from the northern strip roughly proposed for re-settlement, according to Turkish government data.

“We are saying we should form such a safe zone that we, as Turkey, can build towns here in lieu of the tent cities here. Let’s carry them to the safe zones there,” Erdogan said

“Give us logistical support and we can go build housing at 30 km (20 miles) depth in northern Syria. This way, we can provide them with humanitarian living conditions.”

“This either happens or otherwise we will have to open the gates,” Erdogan said. “Either you will provide support, or excuse us, but we are not going to carry this weight alone. We have not been able to get help from the international community, namely the European Union.”

RENEWED CONFLICT

Under a deal agreed between the EU and Turkey in March 2016, Ankara agreed to stem the flow of migrants into Europe in return for billions of euros in aid.

However, the number of migrant arrivals in neighboring Greece spiked last month. A week ago, more than a dozen migrant boats carrying 600 people arrived, the first simultaneous arrival of its kind in three years.

Last month, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said only 17% of refugees in Turkey hail from northeast regions controlled by the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which Ankara considers a terrorist group. Of that region, the proposed safe zone would cover only a fraction.

Last week, senior Syrian Kurdish official Badran Jia Kurd said it is necessary to resettle refugees in their home towns. “Settling hundreds of thousands of Syrians, who are from outside our areas, here would be unacceptable,” he said of the northeast.

In Idlib, where Turkey has troops and where Ankara in 2017 agreed with Moscow and Tehran to reduce fighting, months of renewed conflict intensified in recent weeks and raised prospects of another wave of refugees at Turkey’s borders.

After a truce collapsed in early August, the Russian-backed Syrian army has gained significant ground against rebel forces, some of whom are backed by Turkey.

Nicholas Danforth, Istanbul-based senior visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund, said warning about refugees in the context of the safe zone allows Erdogan to pressure both Europe and the United States at once.

“What seems clear is that it would be impossible to settle that many refugees in any zone achieved through negotiations with the United States and the YPG,” he said.

“This looks like an attempt to build pressure for more U.S. concessions on the safe zone, where some refugees could then be resettled for purposes of domestic (Turkish) public relations.”

(Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay in Ankara and Ellen Francis in Beirut; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Jonathan Spicer, William Maclean)

Greece moves hundreds of asylum-seekers from crowded island camp

Children from Afghanistan wait to board a catamaran that will transfer them to the mainland, in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, Greece, September 2, 2019. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

By Alkis Konstantinidis

LESBOS, Greece (Reuters) – Greece began moving hundreds of asylum-seekers on Monday from a camp on the island of Lesbos that holds around four times the number of people it was built for.

Over 11,000 refugees and migrants, most of whom have fled war or poverty in the Middle East, Asia or Africa, are holed up at Moria in Europe’s biggest migrant camp.

Some 635 people, mostly families, boarded a passenger ship on Monday for facilities in northern Greece, and more were due to leave later in the day.

Moving asylum-seekers from island camps to the mainland is part of government measures announced on Aug. 31 to deal with the rising numbers. All of Greece’s five formal island camps are over capacity.

Moria, which is a disused military base, has been criticized by humanitarian organizations for its squalid living conditions.

It currently holds the highest number of people in three years and violence is not uncommon. An Afghan boy was killed in a fight there last month and women have told aid groups they often feel unsafe.

Greece is Europe’s main gateway for Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi asylum-seekers, and accounts for more than half of the 56,000 migrants who have landed on the Mediterranean’s northern shore this year.

The numbers are small compared to the nearly 1 million people who fled to northern Europe through Greece in 2015, as a deal between the EU and Ankara in March 2016 all but cut off the flow. But they have still piled pressure on Greek facilities.

About 7,000 people landed on Greece’s shores last month, the highest number since the deal was signed. Last Thursday alone, more than a dozen boats arrived with around 600 migrants, prompting the government’s Council for Foreign Affairs and Defense to hold an emergency session.

To curb the influx, Greece also plans to tighten its border controls and speed up deportations of rejected asylum-seekers.

(Writing by Karolina Tagaris; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Four million Venezuelans have fled crisis: U.N.

FILE PHOTO: Venezuelan migrants walk along a trail into Brazil, in the border city of Pacaraima, Brazil, April 11, 2019. REUTERS/Pilar Olivares/File Photo

GENEVA (Reuters) – Four million Venezuelan refugees and migrants have fled an economic and political crisis in their homeland, all but 700,000 of them since the end of 2015, U.N. aid agencies said on Friday.

The “alarming” figure highlights the urgent need to support host countries, mainly in Latin America – led by Colombia, Peru, Chile, Ecuador, Brazil and Argentina – the U.N. refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said in a joint statement issued in Geneva.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Syrians displaced in the northwest call on Turkey to open border

A displaced Syrian child sleeps on a mat laid out on the floor in an olive grove in the town of Atmeh, Idlib province, Syria May 19, 2019. Picture taken May 19, 2019. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

By Khalil Ashawi

ATMEH, Syria (Reuters) – Camped on the Turkish border to escape bombardment by Russian and Syrian government forces, many displaced Syrians are angry and frustrated that Turkey has not done more to protect them from the bombs or let them cross the frontier to safety.

The border wall a few hundred meters (yards) away offers a degree of cover for thousands of people, since air strikes are rare so close to Turkey. But it also blocks any chance they have of fleeing the conflict and joining millions of refugees abroad.

“Turkey is our only option today,” said Abu Abdallah, 51, who left his village at the start of the war in 2011 to seek sanctuary near the town of Qalaat al-Madiq, until it was captured by Syrian government forces in early May.

“We can no longer put up with living under bombardment or in the open under the trees,” said Abu Abdullah, one of thousands of Syrians living in white tents dotted around the rock-strewn olive groves, some of them only 50 meters (yards) from the border.

Some 180,000 people were displaced by the recent attacks in northwest Syria, the last major rebel stronghold. The increase in shelling killed dozens of people and marked the most intense period of violence for months between President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels, who launched a counter-attack last week.

The Syrian government says it is responding to attacks by al Qaeda-linked militants. The dominant insurgent faction in the region is the jihadist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), although the army offensive has not focused on the central Idlib area where it is most concentrated, an HTS-aligned opposition figure said.

Much of the bombardment has hit a buffer zone around Idlib province and surrounding territories which was set up by Russia and Turkey in September under a deal which put off a full-blown assault against the region and its 3 million residents.

Shells from Syrian government territory also hit a Turkish military observation post, one of 12 set up near the Idlib borders by Ankara, which backs the rebels.

At the border, many of the displaced were angry at the lack of Turkish action in response to the recent offensive, and called on Turkey to open its border to allow people to escape.

“We didn’t ask to go into Turkey before,” said 32-year-old Khsara Ahmed al-Hussein. “But when you set up a de-escalation zone and … you guarantee that I won’t get struck, but then even the Turkish observation point is struck by the regime, then what’s the point of protection if you can’t even protect yourself?”

FILE PHOTO: A general view of Atmeh camp for the displaced, in Atmeh town, Idlib province, Syria May 19, 2019. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

FILE PHOTO: A general view of Atmeh camp for the displaced, in Atmeh town, Idlib province, Syria May 19, 2019. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

“LIKE WORLD WAR THREE”

When bombardment of Hussein’s village intensified, his family dug holes in the earth outside their house and slept in them. When the situation became unbearable, they headed to the border, where he has been living under trees for two weeks.

“There were eight planes in the air, bombing intensively, as if it were World War Three,” he said.

Air strikes have hit 18 health facilities and dozens of schools, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). At least 38 children have been killed since the start of last month, Save the Children said.

Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan said last week that attacks on schools and hospitals did not constitute fighting terrorism. His defense minister spoke with his Russian counterpart on Monday about reducing tension in Idlib, Turkey’s defense ministry said.

Near the border village of Atmeh, dozens of people sat under trees with a few blankets and pillows arranged on the hard earth. A blue plastic tarp was draped over the trees to protect them from the burning sun.

Um Bassan wants to join her children who have been in Turkey for over a year, after she and their father spent everything they had to smuggle them out of Syria.

“I want this torture to end and to see my children,” she said. “No one prefers another country over their own, but I want release from the bombardment and to see my children there.”

(Writing and additional reporting by Sarah Dadouch; Editing by Dominic Evans and Edmund Blair)