Ragad, 10, uses crutches to gingerly make her way up a muddy hillside. On her right foot, she wears a bright blue rubber shoe. The other foot is missing, amputated below the knee.
She was injured when a bomb destroyed her family home in Hass, 86km southwest of Syria’s largest city, Aleppo. Many parts of Aleppo are now in ruins after nearly six months of urban warfare; and most of the 25,000 inhabitants of Hass have fled.
Ragad and her family live in a tent on a mud-covered slope. They are among 4,000 people marooned in more than 500 tents at Qah camp for displaced people close to the Turkish border, set up three months ago. More families arrive every day, many from Hass. Another 10,000 people live nearby in the only other known camp in the north, called Atma. Across the country, at least 2.5 million people are internally displaced within Syria, according to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.
Cold and afraid, many here say they want desperately to leave Syria’s nearly two-year conflict behind and cross into Turkey. But for the moment, their northern neighbour has refused to accept them, citing overcrowding. Fourteen Turkish camps, hosting 141,000 people, are already well over capacity, with thousands of people sleeping in communal tents or in neighbouring villages for lack of space.
Turkey's Disaster and Emergency Management Directorate (AFAD) says its door is still open: “Syrian citizens have been coming to our country every day in different numbers and different intensity," its press department said in an email.
But those waiting at the border say Turkey’s earlier open-door policy is no longer in effect. Now, only the injured and those with passports may cross into Turkey. The others must wait in Syria until new refugee camps are built. Six camps are currently under construction; three of them - with a combined capacity of 15,000 people - are set to be ready by the New Year. But for people who have had homes destroyed, family members killed and villages abandoned, it is a race against time, weather and war.
In search of safety
Rows of white tents in Qah camp cover a former olive grove. Remaining trees are being used to erect washing lines. From the camp is a view of a nearby village and acres of olive orchards spread over rolling hills.
The scenery belies a harsh reality. Just two weeks ago, government forces dropped bombs nearby, residents say, creating a panic as people ran desperately for the Turkish border. No deaths were reported, but the situation remains tense.
During the incident, six missiles hit both Qah and Atma, according to Hassan, 35, a former police officer who has joined the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and lives with his family in the camp.
Unlike official refugee camps, where armed groups are prohibited, the FSA and its affiliates maintain control here. Gunfire bursts out in Qah as rebels celebrate the acquisition of a new cache of weapons. A truck mounted with a rocket launcher rolls through the camp.
The FSA presence is both a blessing and a curse for civilians seeking shelter here. Rebels have controlled the territory, making it safe and secure, but their presence makes the area a legitimate target for missile attacks and bombing by government forces.
[The UN appeal] is indicative of the rapid developments on the ground and the dramatically deteriorating humanitarian situation in the country. The magnitude of this humanitarian crisis is indisputable.
Nearly everyone wants to get into Turkey, Hassan explained, where they believe there is better housing, more water and food, but most importantly, safety. However, there is daily movement in the other direction, with an average of 200 Syrian refugees leaving Turkish camps to return home, according to the Turkish government.
“Many children will die”
“There is unbelievable cold now,” Shadi Amin, manager of Qah camp, told IRIN.
Since winter began more than a month ago, the region has experienced days of torrential rains. Water leaks into the tents, wetting blankets, mattresses and rugs. At night, temperatures drop below freezing.
“From inside the tents, you can hear the children crying,” says Mustafa, a 22-year-old former chef and military sergeant who fled from Hass with nine members of his family. Coughing and runny noses abound and deep mud makes it impossible to stay clean.
A young girl froze to death in Atma camp two days ago, Amin said. “In January and February, it will be worse,” he warned. “Many children will die.”
“We just want to go to Turkey,” said one woman, Aziza, her face stoic, and her eight young children huddled around her. Her husband and brother were both killed by gunfire, leaving her to care for the children, most of whom do not have proper winter clothing.
In a makeshift clinic in Qah warmed by a wood-fired furnace, a Syrian doctor with Médecins du Monde (MDM) sees patients, many of them children with respiratory ailments. MDM has set up a medical tent, and provided doctors, medicine and water.
Asking not to be named, the doctor said more than 30 percent of the camp’s residents suffer from diarrhoea as a result of unclean drinking water. He also reported an increase in cases of hepatitis A, which he said is spreading rapidly at the camp.
Trucks transport water from a nearby village. When they arrive, children run with their water buckets. Filling them and lugging them back to their tents seems their main activity. Some boys shovel gravel and carry it in large pans, helping to protect the tents by building dikes around each one. Although a handful of children attend school inside a tent-mosque, hundreds more children are not enrolled in any kind of curriculum.
The displaced, most of whom are elderly, women and children, lack basics such as cooking stoves. There are few men here - most are off fighting with the rebels; some help patrol the camp.
In one tent, a family sits in a circle on a rug, mattresses doubling as cushions. A TV sits in a corner and a light bulb dangles from a cord, but there is no electricity. Camp director Amin says it is coming soon, like the new toilets that will soon replace the malodorous temporary ones provided by the Turkish NGO Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH). A cinder block school is also under construction.
The tent camp exists thanks to an initial donation of US$45,000 by a Libyan NGO called al-Yusr. The money was used to prepare the ground and purchase 60 tents. The former opposition umbrella body, the Syrian National Council, provided another 500 tents, as well as 3,000 blankets. Every day, the Turkish Red Crescent drops 3,000 meals at the border, where volunteers from the camp come and pick them up. Each family receives a food ration.
When donations arrive, blankets and clothing are distributed among the residents. But despite the cold, many children walk around wearing thin sweaters and trousers, and rubber sandals without socks. Over and over again, people say they need warm clothes. Camp officials say they need money to install and use electricity to provide heat. One young mother begged for milk for her baby, another for nappies.
Through the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), the UN has managed to distribute food rations to 1.5 million people. Because of insecurity, SARC cannot physically reach some areas north of Idlib, like these border camps, but uses local committees to send in as much food as it can. Still, at around four million, the number of people in need - including people who have fled their homes, host communities and highly vulnerable people - is much higher than the amount of aid available and UN aid does not reach all parts of the country.
“The level of generosity on the part of both government and individuals has been remarkable,” said Stephanie Bunker, public information officer with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “But we are deeply concerned about the winter. It’s here and it’s deepening.”
New UN appeal
Today, the UN launched a new plan, the fourth of its kind, to respond to the needs of four million people in Syria in the first six months of 2013. It requested US$500 million in funding to address needs inside Syria and another $1 billion to help refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries. Collectively, the two appeals constitute the largest short-term humanitarian appeal ever, the UN said.
“It is highly unusual for such plans to be revised so often, and it is indicative of the rapid developments on the ground and the dramatically deteriorating humanitarian situation in the country,” Radhouane Nouicer, regional humanitarian coordinator in Syria, said in a statement. “The magnitude of this humanitarian crisis is indisputable.”