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Millions of Syrians Are Uprooted but Unable to Flee War-torn Country

April 5, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
At least 3 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes but remain within their war-torn country with no way to escape. Hari Sreenivasan reports on how these Syrians face squalid conditions and health issues, while the global aid community struggles to reach them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There was a stark warning today from the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, about the humanitarian crisis caused in Syria and the ability of the international community to help.

A UNICEF spokesperson said, “The needs are rising exponentially, and we are broke.”

New figures show the number of Syrian refugees in Jordan alone would more than double to 1.2 million by the end of this year. But they may be the lucky ones. Millions more Syrians remain in their country.

And that’s where Hari Sreenivasan picks up the story.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Bab al-Hawa means “gate of the Winds” in Arabic. In Northern Syria, at the border crossing of the same name, it is also the gate into Turkey and escape from the slaughter of civil war.

But for many Syrians, there is no way out. And here at Bab al-Hawa, in Idlib province, thousands live in a squalid makeshift camp within sight of the border and refuge.

Video journalist Ted Nieters traveled to Syria for the NewsHour and found 7,000 people huddled by the frontier. Syrian air force fighter jets flew over the camp, and sent its shell-shocked residents scurrying.

Nawaf Al Moussa came from the countryside of Idlib.

NAWAF AL MOUSSA, Refugee: It’s not safe at all because at the moment the aircraft are over the camp. Every day, there is the sound of aircraft because Aleppo, which is 30 kilometers from here, there is war there. We’re not fighters. We came here to feel safe, because we are civilians.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The United Nations refugee office says two years of upheaval have uprooted at least four million Syrians. That’s about one-fifth of the entire population. More than a million have fled to neighboring nations; more than 300,000 are in Lebanon; a similar number in Jordan; nearly 200,000 are in Turkey, and more than 100,000 Syrians are now in Iraq.

But at least another three million have been displaced internally. And that number comes from the Syrian government itself. The actual number is suspected to be much higher. With Syria’s neighbors straining to serve the huge refugee populations flooding their countries, it is becoming harder and harder for many Syrians to leave.

NAWAF AL MOUSSA: We came here and they promised to let us into Turkey. But now we have been here for one month and more, and they don’t allow us to go. There is no village left, so I can’t go back to my village.

ELIZABETH O’BAGY, Senior Research Analyst, Institute for the Study of War: One of the regime strategies has been kind of the inverse of normal insurgency campaigns that we think of, to the point where what they’re trying to do is purposefully displace populations from town centers and from city centers, so that when the rebels take control, they’re taking control of empty cities and empty villages.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Elizabeth O’Bagy is a research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. She says many Syrian who have the financial means and who wish to flee Syria have already gone. Those left behind are largely fending for themselves.

ELIZABETH O’BAGY: They suffer from lack of food. In the winter, there was no heating units. They’re in freezing temperatures with little clothing options, blankets. All of these are in short supply. Water has often been contaminated. They don’t have adequate water resources, oil resources.

HARI SREENIVASAN: While the refugee populations of surrounding countries receive aid and services of varying quality and frequency, providing assistance to displaced Syrians inside has proven to be an even more difficult operation.

Amna Kizawi came to Bab al-Hawa with her son and daughter; one of her sons was killed amid the fighting.

AMNA KIZAWI, Refugee: They destroyed all the houses. And even though they tried to dig a graveyard, they bombed all the graveyards. I am living in a tent for 15 days with nothing. They haven’t distributed anything to us, just a little bread and canned cheese. It’s very cold at night and now very hot during the day.

CAROLYN MILES, President and CEO, Save the Children: It’s very difficult to get into Syria. The checkpoints are pretty horrendous, up to 20 before we get to where we’re going in terms of the aid.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Carolyn Miles is the president and CEO of Save the Children, which has more than 500 people in Syria and surrounding countries. She’s just returned from Jordan and the huge Zaatari on the border; 1,600 Syrians came over the border on just one night when she was there.

In addition to the 100,000 people they help feed every day throughout the region, Save the Children is reaching about 80,000 inside the country.

CAROLYN MILES: We are delivering, again, food and water inside of Syria with partners. And when they’re caught delivering food, oftentimes, they’re tortured.

I think the biggest challenge is that the work that we’re doing is targeted, so particularly the health system and the health facilities are being targeted.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Are there hospitals left that people can go to?

CAROLYN MILES: There are. There are still hospitals that are open. People still need health services, and so they’re trying to get to those few health clinics and hospitals that are open.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But those few cannot serve millions of internally displaced, many of whom go lacking for even basic health care. Outbreaks of disease typhoid and hepatitis A are starting, thanks to shortages of sanitation and clean water.

ELIZABETH O’BAGY: One of the specific things that they have requested is greater vaccinations, in order to prevent diseases and try and help prevent the outbreak of some of the more contagious diseases that were — they were facing.

It was significantly hindered by Turkish border authorities who weren’t allowing for certain medications and certain vaccinations to get across the border.

HARI SREENIVASAN: At Bab al-Hawa, there is increasing frustration with Turkish authorities:

OMAR IBRAHIM, Serving as Nurse: Turkey promised us many times to allow these people to enter, but in vain. And you can see now that there is a protest at the border. And people want cross into Turkey, but all of that went in vain, because Turkey doesn’t allow them to go.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Omar Ibrahim is serving as a nurse in the camp with little to no medical supplies and equipment. There are no doctors.

OMAR IBRAHIM: I have simple equipment, like injections, some kinds of medicine. But for many cases, I can do nothing, like for pregnant women, because they need delivery rooms, and there are no doctors. They have had two cases this winter where babies died of cold.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Lack of good sanitation and clean water is also contributing to the spread of disease.

OMAR IBRAHIM: They are facing many cases of diarrhea and leishmaniasis and scabs. In fact, because these people have not bathed in 40 days, they’re going to face all those problems.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The NewsHour was told of other cases of leishmaniasis elsewhere in Idlib province. It is spread by insects. One form causes skin lesions. Another type of the disease causes acute fever, weight loss and, if untreated, is often fatal.

Doctors told 10-year-old Amel and her parents that she would need hospital care and an injection to cure what she calls “these things on my face.”

AMEL, Refugee: There is no injection here. And we have to go to Turkey to find it. My mother and father started to get infected, too.

HARI SREENIVASAN: She fled with her family from their village in central Syria after her home was burned. She is one of the estimated two million displaced children in the country, according to a recent report by Save the Children. Three out of four children had lost a loved one. Young Amel is among that number.

AMEL: Everybody. I miss everything in my house, my aunts, my grandmother, even to go to school.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But she does have hopes of one day going home

AMEL: When we go back, I’m going to visit my neighbors, I’m going to play with my friends. My father says we don’t have a house. And I said we are going to fix it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But now, for many trapped here in Bab al-Hawa, that day feels like it may never come.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You can learn more about the impact of war on the very young. Watch Hari’s extended interview with Save the Children’s Carolyn Miles online. Also there, see what life is like for students in a refugee camp classroom. That’s on our World page.