Inside Syria's refugee camps, a harrowing tale of fire and ice
On New Year's Eve, while the world counted down the minutes until 2013, celebrating with loud blasts of fireworks in the sky, a tent with seven sleeping children and a mother in the Olive Tree refugee camp near the Syrian village of Atmeh burst into flames. On the first day of the new year, five of the children were dead.
One day before the devastating fire, I visited the Olive Tree refugee camp. The four-month-old sprawling camp occupies a hill covered with olive trees on Syrian land along the barbed-wire Turkish border. Walking on the muddy path among the rows of the 1,200 tents that shelter between 8,000 and 12,000 Syrian refugees, I was surrounded by children. They gathered around and followed the visitors, asking questions, singing songs and explaining in simple phrases details about their everyday life. Most sentences begin with "we don't have": we don't have water, we don't have electricity, we don't have food, we don't have toys, we don't have ...
The children moved through the camp in groups, some carrying olive tree branches for firewood, others gathered around their mothers who were cooking weed-like greens picked from the land to supplement the dinner rations that are never enough to feed the families. Most are not dressed warmly enough for the cold and almost none of them still go to school. People in the camp that day told me over and over: "We left our homes for our children." But looking at the underfunded, muddy camp with its open sewers and lack of basic services, you wonder what kind of home this is for a child?
The women were busy at the tent entrances, some cooking, some tending to infants, and others clipping wet, drab clothes onto lines stretched between the tents. A woman named Manar, dressed in her only outfit, a rust-coloured velvet galabiyeh, invited me inside to tell me the story of a fire that had happened just 15 days before.
I ducked into her tent and sat on the concrete blocks that separated the muddy entrance from the sparse interior with a few thin mattresses and blankets piled in the corner. Manar is only in her twenties but looks older, worn out. Her eyes filled with tears as she began, "What should I tell you? My heart is burnt, my heart is burnt. Everything I had was burnt."
Two weeks ago, Manar left her two sleeping children, five-year-old daughter Fatima and three-year-old son Diya', in the tent while she trekked to the women's bathrooms across the camp. A few minutes later, on her way back, she saw clouds of smoke rising from her row and realised her tent had caught fire from a candle she had left burning inside. "I ran barefoot to the tent screaming, 'My children, my children.' The people didn't let me inside. Within five minutes the smouldering tent had melted onto the ground. A man named Abdallah wrapped my son in his jacket. Pieces of my son's skin are still on the fabric."
The camp's director, Yakzan Shishakly, later told me that Manar's son was taken for emergency care in Turkey before he died the next day. Her daughter perished immediately.
Manar spoke slowly through her tears, holding her small Nokia phone in her hands, clicking between five photographs: two of her son, one of her daughter, and an image of each of their small graves. She paused between the images, crying, stroking, remembering.
"I fled with them here from so far away to be safe. We fled our home in Binnish because of the shelling. They were my entire life. I don't care about my life any more. I lost my home, my children, my possessions, what's left to lose? All I have is dirt; no Diya' and no Fatima."
Manar's husband, who has left her alone in the camp, now wants to sell her phone for extra cash. She said, "The phone is my life. I won't give him the memory card, I'm going to save the card and buy a new phone. If I don't see them every day I'll go crazy."
She pointed to the children who had followed us inside the tent and said, "The entire camp reminds me of my children. I just want people to take care of these children. I lost my children but I don't want any mother to lose hers. But the children here are dying a thousand deaths every day from cold and hunger." Another woman in the tent said, "We don't want the night to come because of the cold. The children fight over the blankets as they sleep. We wish the night would never come."
Misery in the refugee camps inside Syria is a fact of life for thousands who decided this harsh life is better than living under the regime's continuous shelling and air strikes that hit their villages. But as the second cold winter of the revolution sets in, lack of basic necessities and medical services in the camps is taking a toll on the refugees, especially the thousands of children. Illnesses such as hepatitis B and tuberculosis are spreading due to severe medicine and vaccine shortages. At least two infants died last month from hypothermia in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. And in the Olive Tree camp in Atmeh, tent fires seem to be one of the grave threats facing the children who are left trapped in the flames.
Shishakly, who founded the Maram Foundation to support the Olive Tree camp, understands that the only way to stop these tent-fire tragedies is to replace all the existing tents with fire-resistant ones. This is the short-term solution that must be implemented along with other safety measures and awareness campaigns. But as the world watches Syria and wrings its hands over our endless tragedies, it is clear that the solution for these camps is simple: people need to go back home.
An image of two scorched children from the New Year's Eve fire was widely circulated on social media platforms. The small children's bodies were covered with brown, peeling skin, frozen in their last pose; their facial features melted onto their skulls. I wondered if these two little boys were smiling in one of my photographs from the day before, when they were still alive. Did they sing between the olive trees with their friends as I watched? Did they follow me shyly as we walked through the rows of tents? Were they among the children who asked me to write their names in English in my notebook, delighted to see their names recorded on paper in a foreign language? I'll never know. I imagine the parents have become even more jaded then they were when I saw them; more weary, more hardened.
Our children live on in the memory cards of cell phones. Their mothers' loving hands caress the tiny glowing squares in disbelief. Smiling faces are now a distant memory, the battery drains, the faces fade away, and the mothers are left alone in a cold dark tent tortured with heavy questions of guilt. What if I hadn't left them? What if I had snuffed out the candle and left them in the dark instead? What if we had never left our home?
Are these the choices of Syrians today? To let your child freeze instead of burn? To starve instead of die of illness? To be shelled instead of becoming a refugee? For Manar and the other mothers, it was their fate for their children to burn alive in the final hours of a devastating year between the olive trees. And to live forever in cell phones.
For more information on the Olive Tree refugee camp in Atmeh, Syria, please visit maramfoundation.org
Amal Hanano is the pseudonym for a Syrian American writer
On Twitter: @amalhanano
Updated: January 5, 2013 04:00 AM