Syria crisis: Despair of refugees in Atma camp
- 26 November 2012
- From the section Middle East
From a distance, the camp at Atma looked beautiful: tents clustered together in a dash of white on a brown hill, green rows of olive trees on either side. Close up, it was pure misery.
It had just rained. Women were scooping up handfuls of earth, making little damns to stop water from running into their tents. People struggled uphill, slipping and sliding in mud mixed with sewage.
"All the world can see what's happening here. Did anyone help?" a woman shouted.
She was angry that more foreign journalists were there, filming. She didn't think it would make any difference.
"We have no toilets, no water, no food," said another woman. "Is our situation acceptable? You have been watching us like this for two years. You Westerners are all supporting Bashar."
Western governments have, in fact, called for President Bashar al-Assad to go. But there has been no "Kosovo moment" - when images of cold and hungry people out in the open set in train a foreign intervention.
The numbers are certainly alarming: 2.5m internally displaced; 400,000 refugees in neighbouring countries; 11,000 crossing the border in a single day. And those figure, from the Red Crescent and the UN, are probably underestimates.
So far, though, many of those fleeing the civil war have been invisibly absorbed into friends' and relatives' homes elsewhere in Syria or across the border.
Atma, while distressing enough to witness, is relatively small. But it - or places like it - will probably grow.
That is important for what happens next in Syria. As one senior British official put it to me: "Rolling news coverage of refugees looking wretched could drive policy."
The UN expects the number of registered refugees outside Syria to grow to 700,000 by the end of the year.
Neighbouring Turkey - while generously supporting many refugees - is trying to reduce the flow and so is turning people back.
'Where can we go?'
For many desperate families, fleeing from village to village, Atma is the last stop before Turkey. The tents on the hillside overlook the border fence. People don't want to go back at any cost.
Many have experienced terrible ordeals. Northern Syria has seen some of the worst atrocities of the war.
In one group of tents, we came across survivors of Kfar Obeid: 110 people, or more, were said to have been killed by the security forces there in December 2011.
"They wiped out the whole village," said Samira Khaled, who lost four brothers. As we wept over the bodies, they shot between our feet and said: 'You pigs, we have prepared dinner for you.'"
She went on, tearfully: "Where can we go? Where can we go? All Syria's being killed. We ask God to destroy Bashar. We ask the world to help. For our children, in this rain, in this awful weather, we must prevail. Islam must prevail."
The British official who spoke to me about how TV images of refugees might change policy had added: "Whether that leads to a purely humanitarian response or something military depends in large part on the Americans."
The US is increasingly worried that arming the rebels - or otherwise intervening militarily - will only benefit radical Islamists in Syria. It didn't help that last week rebels in the north declared they were fighting to create an Islamic state.
Outside the large tent being used as the camp mosque, I bumped into Sheikh Samir Ibrahim, chairman of the Syrian Free Scholars and Preachers Committee.
The declaration was a mistake by "our brothers" he told me.
"We are seeking a civil state - one with Islamic legislation and a democratic system. All of Syria's sects will coexist together, whether Alawites, Druze or Christians. We don't want any form of extreme Islamic practice."
But, looking at the squalor around us, he went on: "We hope that the UN and great countries like Britain will hurry up and support the Syrian people. The longer they wait, the more radicalism breeds and the more extreme organisations will emerge."
While western governments debate the truth of this, more people are fleeing. That is no surprise when a typical week can see 1,000 people killed in Syria.
But even in Atma, right on the border, it is difficult to escape the war.
We left Atma on Friday night. On Monday morning, Syrian air force jets fired missiles at buildings used by rebel fighters in the nearby village.
The missiles missed their targets, landing in fields, but one was close to the camp and many people were sent running in panic.
The Syrian volunteers running the camp are extremely worried. They are talking about sending people elsewhere. "Families will carry their tents and Atma will be divided into four or five camps," said one.
Packing up their tents and moving will compound the hopelessness and sense of betrayal we found at Atma. The fine words of Western politicians (or visiting journalists) were "all lies", the angry woman had shouted.
Every day, more people arrive here - 1,500 last week according to one aid worker.
And every day, it gets colder. As winter sets in, the misery here on Syria's border with Turkey will only deepen.