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Fleeing Syrians find a hard sanctuary in camps at Turkish border

Tents have run out at newly built camps for Syrians fleeing the government’s assault on their towns and villages, and for Yassin Alway that means sleeping in the open.

More than 100,000 people have fled to Syria’s border with Turkey since late last year as the Syrian government stepped up an offensive against rebel-held towns and villages, often dropping improvised explosives known as barrel bombs with devastating effect. The conditions caused by the flight are squalid. Donated food is sparse, sanitation is primitive and for those who find themselves in proper camps, electricity is available for only a few hours a day _ if they can pay.

Most noticeably in short supply: tents. Many newcomers find themselves either sleeping under the stars or cramming their way into tents that are already crowded, sometimes with as many as three families.

“I’ve been here for 12 days,” Alway, who’s 21, told a visiting reporter. “I met all the camp managers. They have no tents.”

Even once at the border, it may not be safe. At Bab al Salama, a major border crossing northeast of here where there are at least five major camps for the displaced, a car bomb May 15 killed more than 40 people. The explosion is presumed to have been the work of the radical Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a group once affiliated with al Qaida that’s been battling other rebel groups since January.

The Norwegian Refugee Council estimated this month that 9,500 Syrians are being displaced every day _ one family every minute _ making Syria the biggest and fastest-growing displacement crisis on Earth. The U.N. said earlier this month that 9.2 million Syrians had fled their homes.

When the two aid camps were set up here three months ago, they held 600 displaced people. Today, according to the volunteer directors, who have no budget, there are at least 5,000. The camps would grow even faster if there were tents.

Every newcomer has a story like Alway’s.

“I don’t have a tent. I just asked the camp manager, but they have none,” said Sufug Hsaino, 43, a farmer from the town of Kirkat who’d fled shelling there. He arrived with a family of six and no possessions, and he’s sharing a tent with two other families – 20 people in all.

“All I have is my galabia,” he said, referring to the black robe he was wearing. “We just fled. We had no time to pack.”

Hassan al Hasan purchased a secondhand tent from a family that had moved on to Turkey, but it leaks when it rains. An engineer, Hasan is waiting to bring 30 members of his extended family here.

A visit to the camps for internally displaced people offers a journey into a humanitarian crisis that’s out of control. Aid agencies say they can’t track the movements of the displaced, and under the United Nations’ awkward setup there’s no spokesman for the crisis, no accountability and no transparency _ not even a publicly available list of the camps along the border.

Representatives of nongovernmental organizations working in Syria say there are about 100 camps along the border, with 140,000 displaced Syrians. But the director of the Aisha camp, for children who’ve lost one or both parents, is convinced there are 100 camps in his region alone and that the overall population of the camps could be 300,000.

In the camps, there’s a pervasive sense that the international community has abandoned them. The administrators of four camps McClatchy visited said they had no regular contact with international aid agencies, and practically no support.

At the Shahba’a camp, close to the center of Bab al Hawa, which currently holds about 645 people, a Sunni Muslim cleric approached a visiting reporter and said he wanted to send a message to the American people.

“The Syrian people are suffering because they wanted freedom, they wanted dignity, they wanted to live like all other peoples,” said Sheikh Abu Anas, who’d fled the town of Qastun in the Al Ghab valley. “But the response from the international community is very slow. Why would you intervene in Chad, in Mali, in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in Ukraine and not in Syria?”

Of the four facilities visited, the best equipped was the Aisha camp, which accommodates young children whose fathers were killed fighting the government or were arrested. With 491 children, 433 mothers and 10 elderly men, it was lucky to have found a benefactor, Abdul Mani’a al Ajmi, a Kuwaiti sheikh. At Aisha, everyone is housed in one of 250 containerlike structures, all equipped with kitchen, bath, bedrooms, electricity and running water. There’s a school, a playground and the rare sight of children having fun.

A Turkish charity, IHH, which operates a bakery in the nearby Turkish city of Reyhanli, provides bread daily for everyone in the camp, said the camp’s director, Amr Harisa, 34, who was an Audi car mechanic in Homs, Syria’s third largest city and a major rebel bastion until the evacuation this month of insurgent forces.

In contrast to the $220 per family each month that Harisa has to dispose of, the leaders of the twin camps set up at Bab al Hawa have no money whatsoever to assist 5,000 people, according to the directors, Abdul Muti Hossein, 41, who runs the Alta’awan camp, and Kasar Mansur, 35, who directs the Al Hijaz camp.

The very worst aspect of life in the camps is inadequate toilets, and many women, who don’t want to use the same toilets as men, relieve themselves under the trees.

The International Rescue Committee, a U.S.-based relief organization, had promised permanent latrines, according to Mansur, but it hadn’t delivered.

“I have to have my sons help me to the toilet, because I cannot walk alone,” said Nofa al Khalid, who’s 80. Her daughter gave her a cane to help her. But going to the toilet proved to be too much trouble, and now she uses a plastic bag.

True to its reputation as a can-do organization, within days of fielding a reporter’s question, the International Rescue Committee sent a team to Alta’awan and Hijaz to check out the situation.

“We had a target of 90 emergency latrines. We were only able to install 40,” said Laura Jacoby, the organization’s Syria country director, reporting on the team visit. “We’re still planning to bring in more permanent latrines.” But she couldn’t say when they’d arrive.

Residents of the twin camps have to pay a small fee daily, the equivalent of 35 U.S. cents, for trash removal and for trucks to clean the toilets. Electricity costs $12 a month, for five hours of power each night from a simple generator.

Cooking is on primitive small burners, and food is available for purchase in small shops run by camp residents. “I pay 1,000 lira (about $6) for a kilo of tomatoes, a kilo of cucumbers and a kilo of beans,” said Khalid. That’s all her family can afford. “We see meat only in our dreams,” she said.

Some families don’t have money for food. In those instances, other families chip in. There’s been only one outside food donor, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, which works closely with the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross: a donation in early May of parcels that contained 22 pounds of foodstuffs for each family.

Maintaining their existence under such circumstances is a full-time endeavor for the residents of the two camps, and in a visit that lasted several hours, few brought up politics. But at the Shahba’a camp, everyone within earshot agreed with the Sunni imam, Sheikh Abu Anas, as he pleaded for international support for the rebels.

He said he wasn’t asking for “boots on the ground,” just for a way to stop the air attacks and barrel bombings of areas the rebels occupied.

“Syrians are not terrorists,” he said.

(This article is the latest in a collaboration between McClatchy and PBS’s “Frontline” on the war in Syria. The “Frontline” film “Syria: Arming the Rebels” airs Tuesday, May 27, on most PBS stations. Check local listings.)