AMMAN/GENEVA – Families fleeing air strikes and advancing troops in Syria’s Idlib province are sleeping rough in streets and olive groves, and burning toxic bundles of rubbish to stay warm in the biting winter weather, aid workers say.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been uprooted by a Syrian government assault which has corralled ever growing numbers of people into a shrinking pocket of land near the Turkish border.
Humanitarian agency officials say it is the biggest single displacement of civilians in the nine-year-old war. But they lack the shelter and supplies to support them.
Relief workers say 10 children have died in the last week alone in makeshift camps that now dot the border area. A seemingly endless flow of cars and vehicles packed with belongings of fleeing civilians jam the roads. Some have also fled on foot.
In one camp in northern Idlib, a family of four died of suffocation on Tuesday after inhaling fumes from a fire they had made from shoes, old clothing and cardboard, their neighbor in the camp, known as Dia3, said.
“Most people are bringing bundles of shoes or clothing and burning it,” Adnan al Tayeb told Reuters by phone. “The family were sleeping and suffocated.”
The father, mother and their two children were among tens of thousands of people who had driven north to escape the Russian-backed Syrian government offensive.
Up to three million civilians are stuck between the advancing Syrian government troops and the closed-off border with Turkey, which already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees and says it cannot take more.
Storms which blanketed much of northwest Syria in snow this week has worsened the plight of the displaced. Shelter is scarce, with houses and tents already packed with dozens of people. Many who have become destitute have little money to buy fuel or heaters.
“People are burning anything they have available to them, things that are often dangerous to inhale just to stay warm,” said Rachel Sider of the Norwegian Refugee Council.
Mark Cutts, United Nations Deputy Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis, said the situation in Idlib was catastrophic.
“We keep hearing stories of babies and people dying as a result of cold weather and the inability to stay warm,” he said.
With the Syrian army on the outskirts of Idlib city, currently home to an estimated 1 million people, a full military assault there could lead to even greater upheaval.