Ghouta’s displaced in north Syria: Awaiting the unknown

Mustafa Abu Shams

In the second of four articles written during the forced displacement of Eastern Ghouta’s residents, our reporter looks at the local efforts to house almost 50,000 new arrivals in the country’s already-saturated northern provinces, often relying entirely on private funds, donations, and coordination.

[Editor’s note: This article is the second in a series of four originally published in Arabic by Al-Jumhuriya during the siege and bombardment of Eastern Ghouta, Damascus Province, and the subsequent forced displacement of over 100,000 of its residents. The first in the series may be read here. The original Arabic version of this article, published on 2 April, 2018, may be read here. The four articles have been translated in cooperation with The Ghouta Campaign.]

According to data collected by response coordinators in northern Syria, the areas outside of regime control there (which include Idlib and its rural areas, northern rural Hama, and western rural Aleppo) are inhabited by nearly 3.6 million people, almost 1.2 million of them internally displaced persons (IDPs), either from the same region or elsewhere in Syria.

Now added to these are the displaced from Eastern Ghouta, whose number has reached 47,450 with the arrival on Saturday evening of the eighth and final batch of forcibly displaced people from Ghouta’s central sector to “Point Zero” at Qala’at al-Madiq in rural Hama.

These numbers are unsettling, at a time when humanitarian organizations and local councils are doing the best they can with their modest capacities and limited resources to meet the extensive humanitarian needs in the region. This is especially difficult with the two competing ‘governments’ (the Interim and the so-called Salvation ones) both helpless in the face of a conundrum that can only be solved by swift international intervention; an intervention no longer hoped for.

The reception mechanism

New arrivals of IDPs are initially received at Qala’at al-Madiq/Silos Yard, or “Point Zero,” as it is now widely dubbed. According to Muhammad Jafa, one of the response coordinators, contact with the displaced begins hours after their departure from the assembly point in Eastern Ghouta. There is no prior coordination with any civil or military council in Ghouta. Instead, information regarding their numbers and medical conditions is collected from the displaced themselves. Response coordinators are tasked with obtaining information, organizing the aid process, determining priorities, drafting the necessary plans, and delivering them to humanitarian organizations and local councils in northern Syria.

Some of the forcibly displaced upon their arrival at the reception point in Qala’at al-Madiq. Al-Jumhuriya/Source: the Ihsan organization

According to Obeida Dandoush, an official with the organizations in the north, coordination takes place with various groups, including local councils, humanitarian organizations, charities, and activists. After studying the data provided by the response coordinators, as well as the method of departure; places of transit; numbers; and emergency and medical cases; these groups are able to provide the necessary response, which is twofold.

The first part is an emergency response at Point Zero, where the arrivals are received and provided with basic needs. Humanitarian organizations are responsible for providing drinking water, meals, milk, and baby towels to new arrivals before they are transferred to the temporary accommodation centers that were previously agreed on in coordination with local councils. Meanwhile, medical organizations transfer those cases that require emergency or medical care, including those suffering from combat injuries, to hospitals. At the end of March, there were 4,370 medical cases, 1,280 combat injuries, and 1,166 cases of malnutrition. In addition to the above, organizations coordinate with one another to secure buses for transporting the displaced to shelters.

Makeshift public facilities under construction at the reception point at Qala’at al-Madiq. Al-Jumhuriya/Source: the Ihsan organization

The second component of the response consists of providing the needed aid within the shelter centers in the camps, mosques, and houses that were provided by the local councils after the necessary census polling was conducted. This aid includes relief baskets, hygiene products, and other basic items such as mattresses, blankets, cooking utensils, and emergency and medical aid offered at clinics, both mobile and stationary. Cooked meals are also provided for some groups.

Transit camps

The people coming from Eastern Ghouta have been separated into two temporary camps. One of these is Meznaz camp, located in between the town of Hazano, north of Idlib, and al-Atarib, west of Aleppo. Meznaz has received 1,915 people from the city of Harasta, after having already received 1,055 people from al-Qadam. The other camp, Saa‘id, south-west of the town of Salqin in rural Idlib, has received 3,290 people from Harasta and 296 from al-Qadam.

These camps had already been equipped as temporary shelters, meant to house the displaced while other camps or permanent housing are being prepared. People are supposed to stay in these temporary shelters for no longer than two months.

The displaced in Idlib

The people of Ghouta are distributed across large swathes of Idlib Province, though primarily in Ma‘arrat al-Nu‘man, Ariha, and Idlib city and its surroundings. According to Ayman al-Mar’i, office manager of the Ihsan organization in southern rural Idlib, the region has been divided into four sections. Idlib city has received 1,000 families; the northern and southern Idlib countrysides 700 each; while western Idlib countryside has taken in 250 families.

Using a combination of their own funds and local donations, the local councils of various towns and villages have hosted families to the extent possible. According to Mr. Muthanna of Saraqib’s local council, 200 families were received in the city, which was able to secure 100 houses for the displaced. After these houses were equipped, furnished, and provided with the basic services of water and power (with no assistance from other organizations), the council accompanied these families from Point Zero. Similarly, Ma‘arrat al-Nu‘man received more than 2,000 displaced persons, appealing to humanitarian organizations to provide the necessary aid. Mr. Zakaria Manoun of Ariha’s local council said conditions were poor for the more than 3,000 who have arrived to the city and were housed in a combination of mosques and tents erected in the city’s sports stadium.

Houses in rural Aleppo

With the help of humanitarian organizations, the local councils in western rural Aleppo have undertaken an emergency response by securing shelters in the towns of al-Atarib and Darat Izza. These aid groups also contributed to the preparation of apartments in Kafr Hamra, Haritan, Hayyan, and Anadan.

According to Ibrahim Turki al-Khalil, head of the Free Aleppo Governorate Council, the governorate council has set out, in cooperation with local councils, a plan to offer houses in these areas, after their renovation. This comes as the Sa’id (“Help”), Bina’ (“Construction”), and Nahda (“Renaissance”) organizations have signed contracts to equip 825 residential apartments in Kafr Hamra, according to Yasser Makhzoum of the Elaph Group. 185 of these have already been handed over to families, while the remaining apartments are still being furnished. In addition, 200 apartments have been furnished in Haritan, soon to be followed by 250 more. 61 families are already being housed in these apartments. Meanwhile, 20 families have been housed in Anadan, with the assistance of the Baraka organization, which has committed to equip and furnish houses, according to Muhammad Salamah, the head of Anadan’s local council. Likewise, 50 apartments in Hayyan are now furnished, with five families from Ghouta residing therein. Local councils expect an increase of numbers in these areas, and are accordingly appealing for help from humanitarian organizations to secure water and electricity, which is the biggest obstacle they face in their work.

What’s next?

Despite the substantial popular and institutional will to stand by the displaced from Ghouta, the available solutions seem inadequate, and the future remains unknown. Idlib governorate has declared numerous times that it is no longer able to host new arrivals. Thoughts of securing shelter there have now become a dream for the hundreds of thousands of people living on the ground in haphazard camps, at a time the region still awaits new waves of forcibly displaced arrivals, and new military operations adding to them further, in light of the roving wars of annihilation and expulsion waged by the regime and its allies throughout the country.