8 Jan 2015

‘Catastrophic’ situation in Syria as snowstorm hits

The leader of the Syrian National Coalition opposition group calls for international help as a snowstorm strikes, killing at least five people and bringing misery to thousands.

Elderly female refugee at a Lebanese camp (photo by Hany)

Speaking in Istanbul, SNC interim premier Ahmad Touma said that low temperatures and lack of tents had led to a catastrophic situation on the ground. Mr Touma said that in the past two months alone around 2,000 families had fled the violence and 800 of them had no shelter.

According to Associated Press reports, three Syrian refugees died in Lebanon and two in the northen Syrian city of Aleppo.

However poor visibility grounded government warplanes and silenced the guns, as the heavy snowfall prevented fighting. Beibares Tellawi, an activist in the Syrian city of Homs, told Associated Press “we have no blankets, no heating, but the regime stopped its airstrikes.”

According to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Wednesday 7 January was the first day in three years when no casualties were reported in Syria.

Refugee misery

The unusually harsh winter storm that brought over a half a metre of snow to Lebanon’s Bekaa valley has left thousands of Syrian refugees sheltering in tented settlements battling to survive the cold.

Boys clear a tent roof of snow (photo by Hany)

UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson Lisa Abou Khaled told Channel 4 News how, fearful of their tents collapsing under the weight of the drifts, refugees were having to clamber on top of tents every hour or so to clear the roof during the storm. Often the young climb up, as older family members are too heavy for the tents to bear their weight.

“This storm is scaring us” said refugee Um Ibrahim, worried that she would have nowhere to go if her family’s tent gave way: “this tent is the only shelter we have protecting us.” Her family of nine, which fled to Lebanon from Syria two years ago, has little money to pay for wood for the heater.

Some refugees resorted to burning wood from their own tent structures to keep warm. The heaviest snow was seen in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley, where temperatures fell below freezing, and drifts piled up to heights unseen in years.

More to come

Although the snowfall stopped on Thursday, more is forecast for the weekend. Another 20 centimetres of snow is possible, with temperatures struggling to get above freezing in the day and dropping as low as minus 10 by night.

Hospitals treated children suffering with pneumonia and bronchitis, and there were unconfirmed reports some children had to be treated for hypothermia. Six extra emergency shelters were opened by the UNHCR.

Two Syrian refugees, 30-year-old shepherd Ammar Kamel and 7-year-old Majed Badawi, died in the storm as they trekked across the mountainous terrain from Syria to the Lebanese border town of Chebaa.

Tent collapse

Collapsed tent (photo by Fawzi)

With snow falling continually from late on Tuesday until Thursday morning, some 100 tents did give way, forcing families to seek shelter with neighbours. With roads cut of most people stayed inside, huddled around their heater, waiting for the snow to stop.

Some 144,000 Syrian refugees are living in 850 informal tented settlements across Lebanon. Many thousands more are living in extremely flimsy accomodation such as garages, or unfinished buildings.

Flash flood

The snow also affected camps in Jordan. At the Zaatari camp. where 70,000 Syrians live, the UNHCR said it had evacuated 300 refugees to safe shelters after flash floods coursed through large sections of the camp.

Refugee Abu Mohammad described how many people had been evacuated to schools after their tents were damaged in the storm: “The situation is really difficult for people. Some people’s tents were damaged and there is no electricity nor heating. There is nothing.”

Fellow refugee Abu Rafaat pleaded for heaters and caravans, describing how the carpets in tents had been soaked with water.

The UNHCR now estimates that Syrians now account for one in four of the 13 million refugees under its mandate worldwide.