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An AK47 belonging to a prison guardVincent Palmier

Inside Atmeh

Getting up close with the Syrian refugee crisis as US politicians decide on action

You can see Atmeh before you even cross the border. Beyond the coiled razor wire and guard towers that mark the Turkish perimeter, thousands of white tents stretch out into the red earth and rolling olive groves of Syria’s Idlib province. Driving through the countryside in the summer sunshine while our driver switched between protest songs and, somewhat incongruously, Pursuit of the Pimpmobile by Isaac Hayes, it looked peaceful, almost idyllic.

Once you get closer, you spot the Kalashnikov toting young men who act as camp security watching over the makeshift entrance gate and the ambulances rushing wounded to Turkish hospitals. Aleppo, scene of some of the most brutal fighting in a conflict that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees recently described as “the great tragedy of this century”, is less than 20 miles away.

The first families arrived in Atmeh towards the end of 2011, fleeing President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Unable to freely cross into Turkey, they settled metres from the border. The camp’s population has expanded dramatically since then, as civil war has engulfed Syria and displaced more than two million people. Maram Foundation, which administers the camp, says the recent estimate of the camp’s inhabitants is around 20,000, although aid workers suggest it could now be double that. More arrive every day.

In comparison with some refugee sites, Atmeh is well serviced and run. Nevertheless, conditions are miserable. In summer, the heat is intense, dust coats everything and the meagre shade of the olive bushes offers little respite from the sunshine. Come the first autumn storms, the baked hard ground quickly turns to mud. After that; the sleet and snow of the Syrian winter.

We want the whole world to see how we are living. Cameron, Obama and Hollande have to help us… Syrian people want their help and they are supposed to be on the side of human rights.

Food, medicine and just about everything else is in short supply. “People are dying here,” said Hussein, who works with Maram and guided us round the camp. “They don’t have enough of anything.” 

Crammed together, disease spreads fast and facilities are overwhelmed. “The worst part is the sanitation,” he added, stepping over a fetid stream of sewage running downhill from the tiny toilet block.

There is no electricity either, and a reliance on candles or kerosene lamps has led to tragic accidents, children killed and horribly burned after naked flames ignited flammable canvas.   

Despite all this, life, of a sort, goes on. A short walk from the camp entrance is the school - a scattering of bench-filled tents arranged around a central space.

There, students from the Syrian school years 1-6 and graduating year 12 are taught. On a break from lessons, the younger children gathered round and sung anti-Assad protest songs to us. The year 12 students, while cheerful, were more serious. They are still studying hard despite the lack of any real opportunities for further education. One wants to be an English teacher, another to study maths at university.

A rudimentary economy has developed in Atmeh. Shops have sprung up, including barbers and even small cafes, housed in more permanent breezeblock and wood structures. One man, who gave his name as Abu Amar, sells a colourful, if motley selection of women’s clothes delivered from the souks and bazars of Aleppo. Sales get him enough to eat and drink, he said, but no more.

Somewhat unexpectedly, there is a playpark on the outskirts of the camp, providing a hint of normalcy to the children who flock there. Many brandish toy guns and RPGs, however and seem well versed in the real life operations of both - a grim reminder of the violence they have witnessed.

Walking around the camp, Atmeh’s residents offered us seat, shade and a share of what little food and water they had. Some were embarrassed at the conditions in which they had been forced to exist, but others asked us to pass on a plea for international intervention into a conflict that is consuming their country.

“We want the whole world to see how we are living,” Abu Machmud a former policeman, who absconded with his family after 30 years with the regime, told me.  “Cameron, Obama and Hollande have to help us… Syrian people want their help and they are supposed to be on the side of human rights.”

“If the world lets people like Assad rule,” added anther man. “They will rule the whole world one day.”

With the Obama administration now pushing the Senate to vote for military strikes against the regime, Atmeh’s residents may, in part, get their wish. Recent polls, however, show that support for action is low amongst voters on both sides of the Atlantic and the international community remains deeply divided. As such, strikes are unlikely to be decisive. In the meantime, Syria’s humanitarian crisis is only likely to deteriorate further.