AMMAN: Standing near the patch of ground where she and her eight children sleep at an overcrowded displacement camp in northeastern Syria, her face framed by a black hijab, Hediya Amad looks older than her 45 years.
“As you see, we’re out here in the open,” Amad told Syria Direct in a recent in-person interview, gesturing around her. “We’ve been here for more than a month, with no shelter.”
“We received one parcel of aid in that time,” she said. “What does that one parcel do for a family of nine?”
Amad and her family are from the town of Mayadeen, a former Islamic State stronghold on the Euphrates River, 140km south from where they now reside in their makeshift tent. They fled their home in mid-October to escape fighting between the Islamic State and Syrian government forces.
Fighting in the former Islamic State strongholds of Raqqa and Deir e-Zor provinces reached its zenith in summer and fall of this year, as the United States-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) drove IS from their de facto capital in Raqqa city and pushed them out of villages and towns on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River in Deir e-Zor province. Simultaneously, Syrian regime forces in their own offensive took back Deir e-Zor city and pushed down along the river towards the border with Iraq.
A family sits under a makeshift shelter in Sidd camp in mid-November. Photo by Shivan Hussein for Syria Direct.
As the fighting raged in northeastern Syria, tens of thousands of civilians fled, many seeking refuge in displacement camps in SDF-held territory.
Today, the Islamic State has lost 96 percent of its territory in Iraq and Syria, the US-led coalition says. But the displaced remain scattered throughout the northern camps.
In two of the largest camps currently hosting displaced people from Deir e-Zor and Raqqa, camp administrators and medical officials tell Syria Direct that they are struggling to provide adequate shelter and medical care as winter approaches.
Like many of those fleeing battles in Deir e-Zor as a result of separate, anti-IS offensives by the Syrian regime and the United States-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Amad and her family traveled north to the Sidd displacement in Syria’s northeastern Al-Hasakah province.
When the family arrived, they found a camp filled with others like themselves. Some 50,000 people currently live at the Sidd camp, which was designed to house less than half that number. No tents were available, so Amad and her children have made do since then, sleeping on the ground just outside the camp’s boundaries.
Established in June 2017, Sidd camp—also known as the Shadadi camp—lies 30km south of Hasakah city, on a plain extending along the Euphrates River near the south Hasakah dam in the de facto autonomous Kurdish territories spanning much of northern Syria.
Although the camp has received aid and supplies from a number of international organizations including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), it is still struggling to keep up with the ongoing influx of people who are fleeing the fight against the remnants of IS in Syria.
“The camp can only house 19,000 people,” Zaher Gharbi, a Sidd camp official told Syria Direct last month. “Because there are so many people, we’ve been forced to place many families in a single tent.”
Even with these measures, an estimated 1,700 people like Hediya Amad and her children are living out in the open outside the camp’s boundaries “because we can’t accommodate them,” said Gharbi.
Sidd camp residents are not permitted to leave it for their surroundings in Hasakah province until completing SDF security checks and finding a sponsor outside the camp. The Kurdish-led Self-Administration governing Hasakah province provides bread and water to camp residents.
Displaced people in Sidd camp in mid-November. Photo by Shivan Hussein for Syria Direct.
Medical care in Sidd is reportedly basic, with services provided by the Kurdish Red Crescent out of a large tent and critical cases received by the ICRC. In October, Syria Direct reported that scores of residents were falling ill with preventable diseases such as malnutrition, scabies and tuberculosis in the camp. Little appears to have changed in the weeks since.
Syria Direct reached out to ICRC this month, but a spokeswoman said the organization could not comment at this time “for operational reasons.”
A spokesperson with the US-led coalition’s press desk characterized the international response to the crisis in Syria as “robust” in an email last week.
“The security that the coalition and the SDF provide throughout Syria enables international humanitarian support organizations to travel to IDP camps to deliver food and other supplies,” the unnamed spokesperson said, “as well as to provide medical assistance.”
‘Nowhere to go’
Approximately 175km west of Sidd and 50km north of Raqqa city lies Ain Issa camp, currently home to approximately 25,000 people displaced by fighting in Raqqa and Deir e-Zor.
Ain Issa provides more services than the Sidd camp, issuing one meal a day and tents for most residents and newcomers. The camp often serves as a point of transit for displaced people who continue their journeys elsewhere or return to their homes, and as a result has not grown as large as Sidd, where many cannot leave.
Even so, some in Ain Issa are without shelter. The camp’s director, medical officials and residents all told Syria Direct that they are concerned about lowering temperatures and the state of medical care in the camp.
At Ain Issa, “we are concerned because there are many children,” Angelique Muller, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) coordinator in northern Syria told Syria Direct via Skype from the Kurdish city of Kobani last week. “The cold is really starting to be felt now, and it is not certain that they will be warm.”
A row of tents in Ain Issa camp in mid-November. Photo by Dayna Ayob for Syria Direct.
When Syria Direct spoke to camp resident Abdullah Ahmad in Ain Issa, he had just arrived from Deir e-Zor three days before. At the time he and his family, like Hediya Amad and her family, were sleeping rough outside because he said no tents were available.
“We’ve been looking for a tent for three days,” he said. “The other day, we were sleeping and it rained on us. There was nowhere we could go to get out of it.”
The SDF-backed Raqqa Civil Council has provided some tents, bread and one meal per day to residents of the camp, Jilal Ayyash, the director of Ain Issa camp said.
Even with the support of the Civil Council and a multitude of international organizations, “we’re short on a lot of things, particularly mattresses and blankets, and we’ve reached the winter season” Ayyash said. “We need to build a wall to protect the camps from floods, which happened a couple days ago” when it rained, he added.
Syria Direct spoke to camp director Ayyash in a separate interview this past May, when thousands of Raqqa city residents were already seeking refuge in the camp as the battle approached their homes. At the time, Ain Issa hosted half the number of its current 25,000 residents, but the camp director was already concerned about providing for the thousands who would flee the city.
Now, Ain Issa is hosting not only residents of Raqqa city, but also newcomers from Deir e-Zor.
Kouthr, a mother of five, fled to Ain Issa from Deir e-Zor in recent months. “We left home in our summer clothes,” she told Syria Direct in Ain Issa. “Now it’s winter and there’s nothing to keep us warm. My children are sick from the cold.”
The Kurdish Red Crescent (KRC) provides medical care out of a facility in Ain Issa, with emergency cases diverted to nearby hospitals in towns and cities such as Kobani. MSF supports the KRC with medicine and training, and provides services including emergency medical response and mental health treatment.
Firas Hamzah, the co-president of the Kurdish Red Crescent in Kobani, described persistent medicine shortages to Syria Direct last month, citing delays by supporting organizations such as MSF.
“Conditions are very bad: There are thousands of people here, and we have limited capacity,” Hamzah said.
Three camp residents Syria Direct spoke to expressed frustration at only receiving over-the-counter medicines and painkillers such as paracetamol at the Ain Issa camp clinic.
However, MSF coordinator Muller said that in their view, the amount of medicine provided to Ain Issa is sufficient, “based on the diagnoses.” She ascribed “perceived” shortages to overprescription of some medications.
“We are in a confrontation between two ways of thinking and two ways of approaching medicine,” Muller told Syria Direct from Kobani. “In this country, doctors start immediately with antibiotics—the second or third line of treatment, even for viral infections which do not require them, because this is what the residents want.”
“We can’t support over-prescription of antibiotics,” said Muller. Because of concerns about antibiotic resistance, “we are also limited by our own protocol.”
With reporting by Shivan Hussein and Dayna Ayob.
This report is part of Syria Direct's month-long coverage of northern, Kurdish-held Syria in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer here.