Wednesday, March 3, 2021

ten hours in the Idlib shelter, with survivors of the Syrian regime's offensive

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Idlib football stadium on March 6. LORENZO MELONI / MAGNUM PHOTOS FOR "THE WORLD"

You have to imagine a human tidal wave. A gigantic wave, made up of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children, which falls on a narrow and overcrowded territory. The wave floods the fields, covers the hills, invades the cities. It enters schools and shops, infiltrates unfinished buildings, creeps into every corner, on the first floor of a mosque, like in the basements of a football stadium.

This has been happening for three months in the province of Idlib, the last redoubt of the anti-Assad rebellion, located in the northwest corner of Syria, on the edge of Turkey. A flood of uprooted people, driven from their land by the bombings of the Syrian government and its Russian ally, has overwhelmed the landscape. The United Nations estimates their number at 1 million. They are recognized several kilometers away, by the blue plastic tarpaulin which often serves as their roof, a small patch of color in a world of concrete, stone and dust.

Friday March 6, with the approval of the Turkish authorities, The world was able to access this enclave, populated by 3 million inhabitants, wedged between the pre-regime forces, which hope to recapture it, and the Ankara police, who no longer let anyone cross the border. This ten-hour foray into this world cut off from the world was also permitted by the Salvation Government, the entity in charge of services in the rebel zone, linked to the Salafist group Hayat Tahrir Al-Cham (HTS), the force dominant in Idlib. The trip coincided with the first day of the ceasefire, negotiated the day before in Moscow by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

Article reserved for our subscribers Read also The fragile Idlib ceasefire, a setback for Erdogan

Sitting cross-legged in a camp for displaced people near Sarmada, the first locality after the Bab Al-Hawa border post, an old woman with a copper-colored face peels potatoes. He’s called Hajja Fatma. She lives in a 15 m tent2 with seven of his grandchildren. Kids with disheveled mops and dirty rusks, whose cries mingle with the bleating of a goat, brought in its flight by the occupant of the nearby tent. "At night, when the temperatures drop and there is nothing left to burn in the stove, we roll up the little ones in the blankets and we hug them, so that they stay warm", says Hajja Fatma, who knows that several children have died of cold in recent weeks.

The site, established on the side of a road, made up of about fifty tents, resembles a camp of migrants who would have come from the other side of the world. Clothes are drying on a clothesline pulled between two wooden sticks. Roosters run in the middle of half a dozen water tanks waiting to be filled. No road is paved. The only permanent installation is a prefabricated toilet block. When heavy rains hit the area in February, the whole camp ended up wading. "It was like living in the sewers", loose Hajja Fatma, tweaking her big calloused hands.

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