, Ain Issa, Syrian Arab Republic, Dec 26 – Khadija Alloush made it out alive from Syria’s battle-ravaged Raqa with her five children, but she lost her seven-year-old son to the biting cold of life in a displacement camp.
As temperatures drop, tens of thousands of civilians forced out of their homes by Syria’s war are spending yet another winter in flimsy plastic tents or abandoned half-finished buildings.
And without heating, blankets and warm clothes, or access to proper medical care, even a simple cold can turn deadly.
“My son died because of the cold,” weeps Khadija, 35, her features drawn and exhausted a week after the sudden death of little Abdel Ilah.
After fleeing fighting in the Islamic State group’s former bastion Raqa, Khadija’s family sought refuge in the Ain Issa camp about 50 kilometres (30 miles) north.
Now nighttime temperatures are plummeting to just four degrees Celsius (39 Fahrenheit).
“He coughed and had a fever in the middle of the night. The next day, he was dead,” Khadija tells AFP, drawing her four young children close to her.
“May God spare us in this cold,” she says.
More than 17,000 people have sought refuge in the Ain Issa camp’s 2,550 tents, set up in neat rows exposed to the elements.
Most of the residents fled assaults against IS in Raqa, as well as Syria’s province of Deir Ezzor to the southeast.
Many of their homes have been flattened, their towns and villages reduced to ruins without electricity or running water. Returning is not an option.
– ‘Haven’t stopped coughing’ –
According to the United Nations, which supports the camp, there is no new health care clinic to cater for expanding areas of the sprawling facility.
More than half of the residents say their tents need repairs or maintenance to protect against the cold.
To keep the inside of their tents dry, many in the camp have put up an extra layer of nylon tarps and resort to using rocks to weigh down plastic sheeting to prevent water seeping in.
Camp manager Jalal al-Ayyaf acknowledged there was a “lack of medication” available to displaced families in Ain Issa.
“There are no statistics on infant mortality, but deaths have been caused by illnesses” exacerbated by the cold, Ayyaf said.
Children dash between the camp’s makeshift alleyways, some of them barefoot despite the chill. A few are wrapped up in oversized sweaters and jackets.
In a part of the camp set up as a market, groups of women are gathered around a pile of secondhand clothing, examining jackets and trousers.
Without enough winter clothes, families are using blankets to fashion coats and other warm garments, says International Committee of the Red Cross spokeswoman Ingy Sedky.
“In winter time, children become even more vulnerable and exposed to additional health hazards,” she says.
Zeinab Khalil, a mother of four from Syria’s eastern Albu Kamal, says they are being treated well at the camp, “but we need heating, blankets”.
“Because of the cold, my children and I haven’t stopped coughing since we arrived,” says the 35-year-old.
Crouching in front of her tent, Umm Youssef boils water in a large black pot over a bonfire to bathe her grandchildren.
“The most important thing is that the children can be warm,” says the 55-year-old, her face shielded from the wind by a purple shawl with black polka dots.
“Because of the cold, we’re constantly looking after the children.”
– ‘We have nothing’ –
“We spent 10 days without mattresses or blankets. There’s no heating and it’s freezing,” says Umm Omar, 50, a native of Syria’s Deir Ezzor who sought refuge in the camp two months ago with her family.
Despite the cold, Umm Omar sits outside her tent chopping vegetables for lunch.
“We have nothing in the tents, we sleep one on top of the other. They gave us five blankets but we’re seven people,” she says, describing aid distributions as increasingly irregular.
Since Syria’s conflict erupted in 2011, more than six million people have been displaced internally, many of them multiple times as fighting engulfed the country.
Some 750,000 of them live in camps, transit centres, and other buildings like schools or warehouses, according to the UN.
A half-destroyed school in a rebel bastion outside of Damascus is home to about 100 people, including 71-year-old Abu Mohammad Shahhad.
He escaped fighting near his house in Hosh al-Dawahira to take refuge in the school building in Hammuriya, both areas in the rebel bastion of Eastern Ghouta.
A four-year government siege of the area has made it almost impossible for 400,000 residents to get desperately needed goods and medicine.
“There are no window frames or even glass” to protect from the cold, says Abu Mohammad.
“We even burn plastic here to stay warm.”