From a distance, the Atma camp looks like a giant patchwork quilt: tiny blue and white squares blanketing the rippling hills and mottled fields that define much of Idlib. It is only when you get closer that you realise the squares are, in fact, pitiful plastic tents, home to tens of thousands of internally displaced Syrians caught up in a war that has been dragging on for more than a decade. Closer still, and the laughter of children starts to resonate in your ears: the innocent squeals of young minds who know not how they got here or the hopelessness that lies in store.
That is when a heaviness of the heart sets in, a sadness that creeps up unannounced and weighs down on you like a huge, invisible weight. For it is only when you see the camps with your own eyes, when you actually witness the sea of misery and confusion engulfing the people living here, that you finally start to appreciate the magnitude of the trail of devastation this unforgiving war has left behind.
This is how I felt when I visited the camp in 2018. My television crew and I had crossed the Turkish border and driven ten kilometres into this opposition-controlled corner of north-western Syria to report on a spate of attacks and shelling, allegedly by the Kurdish separatist group, the YPG, that had killed several people. The people there told us they had come from all over the country, Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and elsewhere, to escape the fighting and the violence, leaving all they had ever owned behind, not knowing when – or indeed if – they would ever return.
They had hoped for a safe haven. Instead, they found themselves shoehorned between all manner of perilous elements, from Russian fighter jets swooping menacingly overhead to inter – and even intra – factional fighting between various opposition groups vying for control of the region. Far from being safe, life at the Atma camp left them feeling vulnerable and exposed, as the recent shelling confirmed.
To add to their woes, the escalating violence meant that by 2019, international aid agencies had pulled out of Idlib, leaving three million people relying solely on local assistance for food, medicine, and other basic necessities. During our deployment we visited a hospital in the town of Idlib. The wretchedness of the circumstances under which the medical staff were trying to cope was heart-wrenching: patients slouching on bare concrete floors for lack of beds, their painful moans reverberating through the crumbling walls; basic items such as saline, disinfectant and even painkillers, such as paracetamol, practically non-existent; dispirited and weary doctors and nurses carrying out their duties in appalling conditions. And that was before the coronavirus pandemic had taken hold.
The stories the people told us were echoed across the country. According to the United Nations, the number of internally displaced people in Syria in 2019 stood just shy of six and a half million, most of them living in camps and makeshift shelters.
Four years on, that number has increased, despite the fact that Bashar Al Assad has reclaimed much of the country. But unlike a few years ago, the plight of Syrian people has all but faded from the consciousness of much of the rest of the world.
Yet the situation in Idlib, which remains in the hands of rebel control, continues to deteriorate. Just recently, local doctors lamented the fact that more than a dozen hospitals have closed down or downsized due to funding cuts by international donors. Those that remain open are running at half capacity with medical staff working for free.
The UN says that by the end of last year it had only managed to secure 40 percent of the funding it needs for the province, despite the fact that 97 per cent of people in Idlib are living in extreme poverty, with 80 percent completely dependent on daily food assistance due to damaged infrastructure and economic hardship. Now, with Ramadan upon us, many residents will, in all likelihood, have little on their plates with which to break their fasts.
The violence, too, has not entirely subsided. The former Al Qaeda affiliate, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and its allies have controlled much the province and parts of neighboring areas for some years.
And while it is true that there are now fewer armed clashes since a ceasefire deal was reached between opposition groups and the regime, brokered by Russia and Turkey in March 2020, reports from inside the province point to the fact that Russian forces, which have backed Damascus since 2015 in what many see as an ominous foreshadowing of recent events in Europe, have intensified their attacks on southern Idlib since June.
According to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, six civilians, including women and children, were killed and many others wounded in early February after regime forces shelled a residential area.
Around the same time, the volunteer rescue group, the White Helmets reported that 13 people had been killed after US special forces carried out large-scale raids in the region in what they described as counter-terrorist operations aimed at flushing out suspected ISIS cells. Among those killed were six children and four women.
Added to this, The Syrian Archive, a Berlin-based group that monitors human rights violations, recently published a study that points to the use of new tactics being used by the regime to target rebels and even civilians.
But few people are aware of any of this. The world, it seems, has lost interest in the plight of the Syrian people. These days, few major news organisations touch on the story even fleetingly. Anyone interested in what is happenning inside Syria has to actively seek it out, despite the fact that the war is still ongoing and the suffering continues.
A few weeks ago, around five thousand protestors gathered in the main square in Idlib to mark 11 years since the start of the war. A few Ukrainian flags were spotted at the protest as a mark of solidarity. After all they have been through, the people of Idlib still have it in their hearts to empathise with the suffering of others. If they can do that, the rest of us have no excuse, and that includes extending our thoughts to those who are no longer grabbing the headlines.