Published on 15 Nov 2012

The squalor facing Syria’s refugees in Atmeh

It’s so close to the border you can see it, sprawling ever larger up the olive grows, from well inside Turkey.

And from that distance it looks peculiarly pristine, brilliant white plastic tents marching daily further along the hillsides.

There are various methods of crossing the border and since none is legit, least said the better.

But by mid-morning we were in. In the pathetic dispensary with large, deep shelves and few drugs:

“We lack absolutely everything,” says a Syrian doctor who does not want to be identified, fearing reprisals from the government, even here, deep in rebel-held north Syria.

“We have bad problems for the children here, throat infections and diarrhoea – it will get worse in the winter.”

A few yards away a class of around 110 children is practising Koranic verses and then their English 1 to 10 and ABC.

Picture gallery: Fleeing the fighting – life in Atmeh

The school manager, Baseel Kafar, is close to tears with exasperation:

“What can we do? They have no school for more than a year. We can only try to format their brains. Otherwise they will waste here, become criminals.”

The reddish mud is everywhere, water flows wherever it will after the first autumn storms. There are a few metal latrines, a very few and for women only.

The men and boys simply drift off into the surrounding olive trees and pick their spot. Sewage seeps from the women-only cubicles, just a few yards from the drinking water point.

But there is food Рtrucks pass through with plastic bags of loaves, bottled water and fresh vegetables. Blackened family pots simmer away on olive-branch fires of thick tomato or tomato and aubergine soup Рthe staple here. 

And all the time they come. Another sad heap of bedding, gas canisters and rapidly-salvaged clothing is dumped in the dirt.

Bashir Deban, 15, speaks for parents too scared to be filmed:

“We’ve come from Aran Nassan – it’s terrible there. They’re attacking from the air with MIGs, helicopters and tanks and mortars on the ground.”

Everyone says 13 people were killed there two days ago. Nine from the same family. The mother was decapitated by the blasts.

We can’t verify this but so many say the same thing.

Ahmed Mustafa Kafar is 13 and takes us to the tent where he, five brothers, five sisters and his parents will sleep as they have for two months now.

“Yes of course I want to be at home – this is awful here – but at least it is safe.”

Thus far, the MIGs and helicopter gunships have given Atmeh a miss. But nobody knows if that will last.

But Atmah is no easy option and life here will become hellish in the snow of the cold Syrian oncoming winter.

Small wonder that the doctor here says some have upped and left, preferring the shelling and mayhem south of here to the pitiful tented hillsides of Atmeh.

Some kind of choice.

Follow @alextomo on Twitter

Tweets by @alextomo

6 reader comments

  1. Gerard Horgan says:

    Hi Alex, Just watched your excellent report on the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Syria, in what must have been extremely difficult reporting conditions. Heart breaking situation. Please keep up the reporting as we can only hope it leads to some change especially now that you got to put it directly to one of the senior figures in the UN.

  2. Fiona Stevenson says:

    Modest or otherwise, how on earth can that portly genteleman (?) from the UN in Barcelona suggest that your profession be able to rectify global problems.
    This is a disgraceful example of doing deals behind close then asking the world to ammend their guilt over cars, furs, diamonds…
    Turkey is not opening its borders because it does not have the infrastructure to accept refugees ad hoc.
    Also fed up with begging advetisements of children in desperate need when their governments are raking it in hand over fist.

    PS. Can’t somebody tell Sally Berkow to shut up. She’s very unintersting

  3. Tom Dennis says:

    I find this appalling and tragic. Why, as you say, can the world not muster itself to help these people?! This is not about military intervention, but humanitarian aid. Is there nothing we as individuals can do to help With money, food or basic medical supplies? The media puts it into people’s homes, but there seems to be no action we can take. Can anything be done?!

  4. hanadi says:

    Well said Tom. those of you who saw Alex’s report will have seen him mention the charity I work for, Hand in Hand for Syria. It’s very difficult but we can and do get aid in. It’s not on the scale that would be achieved if the UN got its act together but its a start. We really need so much public support so we can do something to help these poor people before the worst of the winter weather sets in.

  5. Philip Edwards says:


    It isn’t easy to maintain some sort of humanitarian balance in the face of such terrible tragedy. But you do your best, for which I thank you.

    Presumably the Assad regime is not trying to destabilise itself. Which in turn implies external interference. Which in turn implies neighbouring states. And since virtually all Syria’s neighbouring states are puppet regimes supported by the USA and Europe, then it is right to be suspicious the “rebellion” was at least encouraged by the West. After all, it was war criminal Colin Powell who threatened Syria while the West invaded Iraq and set out to mass murder its innocent civilians.

    The overall result is the catastrophe you rightly bring to our attention. The same thing happened (and continues to happen) in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    The truth is the West could not care less about the people of the Middle East. Its only interest is the oil and its profits. Anyone like Assad – a brutal dictator to be sure – who displays the least independence is attacked, for which see Gadaffi and Hussein. The same pattern is followed in Central and South America.

    One day the USA and Europe will pay a terrible price for their colonialism and genocide. Nothing is more certain. As Santayana said, those who forget the past are condemned to re-live it.

    And just to compound the horror – there is no “European Spring” or “USA Spring,” only “riots” at “austerity.” And Western mainstream media still lives in the Cold War era in its assault on Russia and China.

    Do you detect a pattern here?

  6. carson says:

    why did you and you and you biased tv channel not report that the hamas terrorists had beed firing rockets into southern israel for months ? but when israel retaliates we all have to stop the world and condem them , yours is the type of reporting that has put you profession in the mud .

Comments are closed.