BAB AL SALAMAH – According to the forecast, it was supposed to rain hard earlier this week in the Bab al-Salamah refugee camp, in the Aleppo countryside near the Turkish border. But Abu Ahmad did not pay attention. Most of what was supposed to be a record-cold winter had passed with no rain at all, except for the snowstorm Alexa, which hit in December, spurring fears of record snowfalls.
One night, “I woke up at four and the water was flowing on the ground. It was raining hard. The tent was full of mud. The sewage canals close to the tent flooded,” Abu Ahmad says. He and his neighbors quickly took their blankets and mattresses and moved to his brother-in-law’s tent, located on a small hill and safe from flooding.
Sami, a father of three who had migrated from Aleppo city a year ago, was sleeping with his wife and kids in their tent when it started raining. Like Abu Ahmad and others, Sami hadn’t imagined that the heavy rain would swamp his tent. But then he felt water under his feet in the tent, which was set on the soil without a base to prevent water from pouring inside.
“It was very hard to walk in the camp because of the mud. We had to leave our shoes stuck in the mud behind us and keep walking,” he says. “As for going to the restrooms, that was a problem by itself … it would take hours to get there.”
Mustafa Najjar, the manager of the nearby Bab el-Salameh border crossing, says that like with most camps housing Syrian refugees, overcrowding is the reason behind the lack of sufficient services. “The camp is designed to accommodate 7,000 people.” A months long barrel bombing campaign on opposition-held areas of Aleppo has led thousands to flee, in what aid organizations say is one of the biggest refugee flows since the beginning of the conflict.
“After the Syrian regime’s attack on Aleppo with explosive barrels, huge numbers migrated to the camp and its population surpassed 16,000,” he says. “This is far above what the camp can accommodate.”
The rain swamped a large part of the camp, which houses thousands of the internally displaced, mostly from opposition-held areas of Aleppo city. Having fled their homes, they were now forced to move once again, to the tents of friends or family members on the other side of the camp. “It was a very bad night,” says Fatima, Sami’s wife. “We were eight of us in that relative’s tent. No one slept except for the kids. It was very cold and the rain leaked from all sides. We ran away from death in Aleppo; from missiles and tanks, but here we die a thousand times a day because of cold weather, hunger and maybe drowning.”
A 10-year-old boy named Uthman was standing in the mud left by the flooding, his feet caked. His rain boots kept getting stuck in the mud, he says, so he decided to walk barefoot. “I’m responsible for bringing water and food to our tent,” he says. Slowed by the mud, “I need an hour to get to the water tank and another hour waiting for my turn.”
At the outer edges of the camp, which are at a higher level, after the morning sunshine dried the soil, several men were sleeping on the ground after a long night moving their belongings.
In the camp’s administrative office, officials’ clothes were also covered in mud. “For the first time in my life, I see how rain can bring misery. I always thought of rain as a blessing. Three hundred tents are flooded with water and 420 more are not suitable for living in because of water damage,” says camp manager Abu Usama.
There is no regular sewage system in the camp – it relies on a hand-dug network of canals between tents. The rains flooded those canals, and sewage entered the tents.
“Diseases had already spread around the camp and now, after the sewage water swamped the tents, I expect the situation to become worse,” says Abu Usama. “We’ve already detected many cases of tuberculosis and digestive diseases.”