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Photography - Issue #8

Dust, Rain and War

Words and photographs by Fadi Al-Shami

Syrian photographer Fadi Al-Shami has been documenting events in Syria since 2013. Most recently, he has focused his lens on the Idlib governate, a region to the north-west of the country that is caught between the opposition forces that control the area and the advance of government forces backed by Russia and Iran, as hundreds of thousands of people are being forced from their homes by the ensuing violence, many of them ending up in makeshift camps in the countryside.

An air strike targetted the Jabal Al-Zawiya area in the Idlib governorate.

Since the Syrian war began in 2011, over 5.5 million Syrians are living as refugees in neighbouring countries, while 6.7 million people, including an estimated 2.5 million children, are displaced inside the country, according to UN figures. These numbers were aggravated in September 2015, when Russian warplanes intervened on the side of the Syrian regime.

The UN reports that 1.8 million of those internally displaced people are living in camps and informal settlements. And while those who remained in their cities and villages are in danger of death as a result of bombing or clashes, those who fled with their lives to the camps struggle to survive, finding it difficult to obtain their basic needs.

The informal settlements, often set up on agricultural land, suffer from high temperatures during the summer, accompanied by a proliferation of dangerous reptiles such as poisonous snakes and scorpions. The extreme temperature inside the canvas tents during summer causes sunstroke, fever, and water intoxication.

In winter, their suffering gets worse with heavy rains that turn dust into mud, and floods sweep away their tents and drown their clothes and belongings. This has been the case every winter since 2013 for those living in informal settlements in the rural areas of Idlib and Aleppo governorates in northwestern Syria.

An explosion caused a fire to break out close to a camp for the displaced near the town of Al-Foah, north-west Idlib.

There is a lack of health care for the displaced people and in the informal settlements the sewerage for the toilets is carried out through open channels, passing between the tents. The toilets themselves are in a miserable condition, as they are very few compared to the camp populations - they are almost all open, and there is often no water. Drinking water is scarce.

The increased attacks of the Syrian regime during the past two years, supported by Russian warplanes, Iranian forces, and some Iranian-sponsored Afghan mercenaries, have significantly contributed to the displacement in Idlib. According to the UN, as the fighting around Idlib got worse in the winter of 2019-20, more than 900,000 people fled their homes or shelters. Most are now in northern Idlib and Aleppo governorates, compounding an already dire humanitarian situation there. With the repeated waves of displacement from the southern countryside of Idlib and the western countryside of Aleppo, the number of displaced people in the camps has increased, and new camps have been established to house the displaced.

Most of the villages and towns on the south of the M4 international highway, which runs from Latakia to Saraqib, parallel with Syria’s northern border with Turkey, are also being heavily bombarded by the Syrian regime’s artillery and Russian warplanes, despite this area being the subject of a ceasefire agreement agreed by Russia and Turkey in March 2020. Dozens of families, sheltering in tents far from their villages, continue to be bombarded daily.

Children from the camps in the vicinity of the town of Kafr Lusin wait for the garbage trucks to deliver fresh waste. They look for anything that they can sell to help support their families.

And the spectre of displacement now hangs over tens of thousands of civilians in the towns of the Jabal Al-Zawiya region in the southern countryside of Idlib governorate, as government and Russian forces attack daily. The region has begun to record many cases of displacement towards neighbouring areas or the northern countryside, which is already crowded with displaced people, at a time when living conditions are deteriorating.

The situation is compounded by one of the worst socio-economic downturns since the start of the crisis, according to UN reports. In the past year alone, the Syrian pound has lost three quarters of its value while the cost of food and other essential items has rocketed by more than 200%. And the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has only made things worse.

The combined effect has been a dramatic reduction in purchasing power and rising levels of debt, leaving millions incapable of putting food on the table and meeting their basic needs. The UN estimates that over 13 million Syrians currently require humanitarian and protection assistance and almost 90% of the population lives in poverty. Of those, the World Food Programme estimates that the number of Syrians who are severely food insecure, meaning they cannot survive without food assistance, has doubled in the past year to 1.3 million.

Ten years on from the outbreak of the war, the suffering of Syria’s displaced people continues. With my camera I am capturing those people’s will to survive despite all the tragedies they are living through. I hope that one day soon we will return to our homes from which we were displaced.

Forty-year-old Mahmoud Qaddour used to farm in the countryside of Aleppo until a bombing raid left him without the bottom halves of his legs. He escaped to a camp, near the town of Kafr Nasiyah, where he now grows vegetables with the assistance of his 11-year old son.

Displaced workers, from camps close to the town of Sarmadā, north-west Syria, break rocks to be used for building.

Children in Al-Tah camp near the town of Ma’arat Misrin bathe in water to cool down. As temperatures reach 43C during the day, access to clean and safe water is critical although not always a given.

Children in Al-Tah camp near the town of Ma’arat Misrin bathe in water to cool down. As temperatures reach 43C during the day, access to clean and safe water is critical although not always a given.

A pickup truck is converted into a mobile swimming pool for the children of the camps to escape the summer heat and enjoy themselves. The pickup truck was originally used by Ahmed Al-Yassin (on the left holding the truck) and his family to escape from their home town of Kafr Roma after it was bombarded.

In order to spread awareness of Covid prevention methods in the Al-Anwar camp, 13-year-old artist Osama Alali painted masks on the faces of children.

A day of activities was held in the camp of Baraem Abu Al-Fida.

Just four days later, ice and snow gripped the camps in the Idlib governate.

In January 2021, across northern Idlib, thousands of tents were damaged or destroyed by snow, heavy rain and flooding.

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