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Idlib is the last refuge for Syrians fleeing Assad — and it is barely livable

The war in Syria has waged for almost nine years and claimed millions of lives. Northwest Idlib province is the last refuge for Syrians fleeing attacks by President Bashar al-Assad's regime. But the crowded, muddy refugee camps there offer little shelter or support, and to the north, Turkey’s border is closed to those seeking better conditions. Nick Schifrin reports on Idlib’s “fragile stability.”

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The war in Syria has waged for almost nine years and claimed millions of lives.

    Northwest Idlib province is the last refuge for many Syrians opposed to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, in the Northeast, Kurdish forces are dealing with a new reality that includes far fewer American allies.

    Nick Schifrin is back with this update.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In this camp in Idlib province, the mud is thick. The morning walk to get water is through what seem like permanent puddles. Life here is defined by the mud.

    It's where boys will be boys, and where little girls in flip-flops try not to slip, hanging onto tents that have become their homes.

    They are the displaced families who've fled to Idlib because it was the last place to flee to, the displaced children who've seen things no adult should ever have to see. This is Ahlam.

  • Girl (through translator):

    We were displaced to this camp because of the airstrikes and the missiles. There is too much mud. There is no school.

    In my village, I used to play with my friends at school. My friends were killed in an airstrike, and I survived, then came here.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In this camp, children become caregivers. And they heat their hands on a blackened outdoor tea kettle. This family has been living here since May.

  • Man (through translator):

    It is very difficult to walk because of the mud. The tent doesn't weather the cold or the storms. We don't have proper stoves for heating. And, as you see, the conditions are terrible. My children are always sick because of the cold.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Nearby, this woman tells us she fled her home as it was bombed in the middle of the night.

  • Woman (through translator):

    It is too much cold and mud here. I am getting sick all the time. I pray that we won't be flooded because of the rain. My fear is that we will get flooded and drown. I hope that I won't drown and die in the flood.

  • Zaher Sahloul:

    I have been going to Syria multiple times in the past seven, eight years. This is the worst I have seen in terms of the inability of the international community to accommodate to the needs of the displaced.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Zaher Sahloul is a doctor in Chicago who regularly returns to his native Syria to help. These scenes were all filmed by him.

    The Kafr Yamhoul camp has more than doubled in population in the last six months because Russian and Syrian jets followed refugees to Idlib. There's supposed to be a cease-fire, but the airstrikes are relentless.

    In December alone, at least 65 children were killed or injured. And they're trapped between the regime and Russia from the south and the closed Turkish border in the north. Hundreds of thousands are settling close to that border, but Turkey already has four million refugees, and its doors are locked, says Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

  • President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (through translator):

    This cease-fire must be conducted in a way to prevent 400,000 people from reaching our borders.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And for those people still in Idlib, they need to survive both the airstrikes and illness. In the camp, Sahloul treated whomever he could.

  • Zaher Sahloul:

    Everyone had some respiratory issues. Some of them had asthma. Some of them had infections. Some of them had pneumonia. Of course, everyone had psychological trauma because of the recent displacement.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Many families have been forced to flee the airstrikes multiple times. A local humanitarian group set up tents under a stadium's grandstand.

    And in a nearby former school, children with American superhero backpacks walk where the walls are full of holes, and where, outside the windows, playgrounds have long been abandoned.

  • Zaher Sahloul:

    Every deserted building, every old school, every mosque were converted to temporary shelters. It was very cold in the building.

    There was this old piano that the children were trying to play with, but it was a scene like you are in a horror movie.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    A thousand miles away, in Northeast Syria, the map is very different. The American footprint has dropped from 1,000 to about 500. They're deployed with the mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces.

    But since Turkey's incursion in November, things have become more complicated.

  • Gayle Tzemach Lemmon:

    You have this casserole of flags. Within several hours driving, we saw a Syrian-regime-flagged a vehicle. We saw a Russian-flagged vehicle. And then we saw a U.S. convoy.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and visited the region just before Christmas, her eighth visit in the last few years.

    She says there's a tenuous stability kept by the mostly Kurdish SDF.

  • Gayle Tzemach Lemmon:

    It is a remarkable testament to the ability of the SDF, who fought ISIS alongside the Americans, to keep in place a very fragile, pretty endangered, but still very real governance structure, keeping a level of security and stability in place.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But the SDF is distracted from their fight against ISIS by the incursion of Turkish forces, who consider them terrorists, and a displacement crisis.

  • Gayle Tzemach Lemmon:

    If the forces who are fighting ISIS now also have to defend themselves, and to deal with roughly 200,000 or so who are estimated to have been displaced by the incursion, you can imagine that the fight against the Islamic State doesn't become secondary, but it is competing with survival in terms of priorities for these folks.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Lemmon met with SDF Commander Mazloum Kobani, who spends much of his time negotiating with the multiple militaries deployed to Syria.

  • Gayle Tzemach Lemmon:

    So far, it looks like a lot of deconfliction and a lot of discussion with Russia. There's a lot of conversation going on.

    I think that Mazloum no longer has illusions that the Americans are going to protect the Syrian Kurds or their gains. But he does ask that the Americans stay, right — he was very clear in our conversation — until a political process is in place.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But that political process is stalled. And so Idlib's displaced children spend every night around the campfire. Sahloul is with them, trying to find light in darkness.

  • Zaher Sahloul:

    We have children of this camp who have been here for about a year or so, and they are all beautiful and cute.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    They sing a song called "My Homeland" about survival and happiness.

    And this is where, in their innocence, these children find resilience. To draw pictures, they use the mud that defines their camp. They use mud to leave their handprints and turn their hardship into hope.

  • Zaher Sahloul:

    Most of the children adapt to their situation very quickly. And they laugh. They smile. They play. They sing. They dream of future.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But they still live in Syria, where most of those dreams are nightmares. And while the adults try to distract the children with shadow boxes, the monsters here are all too real.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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