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Syrian refugees 'struggling for their survival'

Julia Hahn
September 20, 2018

Syria's offensive to retake the last rebel stronghold of Idlib has been averted, for now. Nevertheless, many refugees still fear for their safety. DW's Julia Hahn reports from the Turkish border town of Reyhanli.

Abdulmajid Al-Halabi and his family
Image: DW/J. Hahn

Turkey-Syria border plight

The only way Abdulmajid Al-Halabi ever gets to see his sister Fatima is when they send each other video messages through WhatsApp. In the last one she sent a couple of days ago, Fatima is sitting on the floor, surrounded by her children. She looks exhausted. "There were airstrikes today," Fatima tells her brother in the video. "The little one got injured — can you see?" Then she says she's thankful nothing worse happened.

Read more: Rebuilding Assad's Syria: Who should foot the bill?

Fatima lives in a village near the city of Idlib, capital of the province of the same name in northwestern Syria. Six years ago, her brother Abdulmajid fled north across the border into Turkey, to the town of Reyhanli. "When Fatima's house was destroyed in an attack, she took her children and fled to her parents' village," Abdulmajid recalls. "But later, that village was attacked as well." Abdulmajid says his sister never expected the Syrian war would drag on all these years.

Abdulmajid Al-Halabi holding his phone
Abdulmajid only sees his sister when they exchange video chat messagesImage: DW/J. Hahn

Out of harm's way

Abdulmajid, his wife and five children live in an illegal makeshift camp on Turkish soil, tolerated by the authorities. The family shares a single room. "This is our only hope," Abdulmajid says while inspecting the hole-ridden tarpaulin of his temporary home. "You should see what it's like here in winter, when the earth outside turns to mud and temperatures drop." But at least here in Turkey, Abdulmajid and his family are safe.

Read more: What do the US, Russia, Turkey and Iran want in Syria?

After seven years of constant fighting, the Syrian army and their Russian allies had recently prepared to retake the province of Idlib, the country's last remaining major rebel stronghold. Some 3 to 4 million civilians are thought to live there — roughly half of them Syrians who fled there from other parts of the war-torn country. For them, Idlib province represented a save haven. But now, they're stuck.

Refugee children in Turkey
More than 3.5 million refugees already live in TurkeyImage: DW/J. Hahn

Refugees seeking safety along Turkish border

That's because Turkey sealed its border with Syria three years ago, erecting an 800-kilometer (500-mile) concrete wall along the frontier to "stop terrorists and smugglers." Officially, Turkey no longer takes in any refugees. More than 3.5 million refugees already call Turkey their new home today. Indeed, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently warned his country "has gone far beyond what it can do to help."

Read more: In Syria, death notices for the missing bring unwelcome closure

From the hills of Reyhanli on the Turkish side, one has a clear view of the Syrian border region. Here, tents housing Syrian refugees stand cheek by jowl for as far as the eye can see. Turkish aid agencies are providing humanitarian relief but the situation has deteriorated as thousands more flee to the border region in fear of a looming military offensive on Idlib. Relief agencies say so far more than 700,000 refugees have sought shelter along the Turkish border.

Syria-Turkey border near the Syrian city of Atimah
An 800-kilometer border fence separates Syria from TurkeyImage: Reuters/O. Orsal

Aid agencies doing what they can

Kadir Akgunduz and his colleagues at the Turkish Red Crescent have increased their aid deliveries to Idlib in recent weeks. Several times per week, they bring thousands of crates with food, hygiene products, toys, shoes and clothing to Syria. "Only in Idlib, there are more than 400 camps," explains Akgunduz, who coordinates the Turkish Red Crescent's Syria mission. "People are struggling for their survival. Most of them have lost everything they have, their homes, cars, etcetera." For them, Akgunduz says, its all about just surviving to see the next day. Many struggle with emotional wounds wrought by seven long years of constant fighting. "After all these years, people are both psychologically stressed out and tired, because nobody knows for certain what is going to happen next," Akgunduz says. "Here is always a possibility of a bomb attack, they are always worried about their life, about their children."

Read more: Syrian detainee No. 72's tales of torture

Akgunduz welcomes the deal stuck between Erdogan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, earlier this week to create a demilitarized zone around Idlib by October 15. The buffer zone will be between 15 and 20 kilometers wide, separating the rebel-held region from the Syrian army. It will be controlled by Turkish and Russian military police. "For the security situation to improve, it's important that neither side engages in hostilities," says Akgunduz. That, he adds, makes their job much easier.

The Turkish Red Crescent's Kadir Akgündüz
Akgunduz of the Turkish Red Crescent says that Syrian refugees are exhausted from seven years of warImage: DW/J. Hahn

Humanitarian crisis averted?

The agreement between Erdogan and Putin also envisions "extremists, especially of the Nusra Front," which is now known as Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, to leave the area. It is hitherto unclear how they are supposed to withdraw, let alone whether they are even willing to do so. The deal leaves many open questions and it is unclear how it will be implemented. Despite these shortcomings, Erdogan has lauded the agreement as a diplomatic coup, boasting that "we have managed to avert a humanitarian disaster."

Read more: Demilitarized zone in Syria's Idlib: What comes next?

Abdulmajid and his fellow refugees who sought safety on Turkish soil consider Erdogan a hero. "Of course the deal does not solve all problems," Abdulmajid admits. "But when you're desperate you need to try just about anything." At least for now, he adds, the deal will hopefully put and end to the bloodshed.

Battle for Idlib: Endgame in Syria?

DW Julia Hahn
Julia Hahn DW Turkey Correspondent@juliahahntv