ALEPPO, Syria—More than 100,000 Syrians displaced by the Assad government’s ongoing military offensive in southern Aleppo are struggling to find adequate water and shelter as winter steadily approaches.
In just over a two-week period in October, ground fighting and intense aerial bombardments forced at least 120,000 Syrians to flee their homes in the area, according to figures provide by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
The Syrian government’s Aleppo offensive, aided by Iranian and Hezbollah-backed militias and Russian air power, aims to retake territory lost to opposition forces over the last year, particularly in areas near Syria’s major north–south highway, which connects Damascus with the country’s northernmost city.
Displacement has been most acutely felt in rural villages like Ahtin, al-Zerbeb, and al-Wadeebi, with nearly 25,000 — basically the entire village — people fleeing from al-Hader alone.
But the displaced have not gone far. Despite heavy rains and a lack of drinking water and electricity, many have set up tents in farmlands and villages found on the road heading south towards Idlib.
“We ran away from death,” said Abu Ali, a man in his 30s from the village of al-Hadir. “The skies suddenly started raining missiles and bombs. I put my whole family, including my kids, my parents and my siblings into my pickup truck, and I drove.”
“I didn’t know where I was going. I drove until I reached a place where I saw people with tents, so we decided to set ours up and stay here. We are all waiting to see what will happen, so we can figure out what we’ll do next,” he added.
Local humanitarian organizations have mobilized to Aleppo’s rural south to provide aid, but residents and aid workers told Syria Deeply the response has not nearly been enough.
“The needs by far exceed our ability to respond, which has been further exacerbated by the challenging conditions on the ground,” a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) told Syria Deeply.
“Both the ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent have been working to help the already overstretched structures to cope with the overwhelming needs … but this is just a drop in the ocean,” the spokesperson said.
The some 120,000 Syrians displaced last month in Aleppo are not alone, however. The ICRC estimates there are nearly 1.5 million displaced persons in the province of Aleppo alone, and 6.5 million across Syria.
“As soon as we learned what happened, we headed directly to the areas where the displaced people were gathering,” said Ali Faila, a relief official officer with a local organization focused on humanitarian work and aid distribution. “There are about 130,000 newly displaced people – that means nearly 26,000 families,” he said.
“We’ve distributed winter clothes, boots, tents, blankets, sleeping pads and some food items like dates and beans. Other organizations have provided people with food. But the numbers are too high for us to help everyone.”
When the bombing became too much for her to stand, Um Abdullah, a 57-year-old widow from al-Zerbeh, took her four children and headed south into Aleppo’s countryside. Like most of the area’s recently displaced, she chose her camp at random, in an area where she found others gathering.
“This is harder than anything we’ve ever faced,” she told Syria Deeply, as she and her kids picked through a plate of boiled potatoes passed out by one of the many aid organizations in the area.
“We left everything behind. Our life was hard, but now it is beyond all we’ve imagined,” she said, tears slowly rolling down her cheeks.
The biggest problem facing Aleppo’s displaced, aside from the increasingly cold nights, is the lack of water. The entire province of Aleppo has faced increasingly debilitating cuts to water since the summer, lasting up to two weeks in length every month, due to ongoing violence to the city’s south.
“The hardest part is the lack of water,” said Um Ali, the mother and sole caretaker of six young girls. She told Syria Deeply her family “ran away from death,” only to face “suffering in different forms.”
With local organizations seemingly unable to cope, some of Aleppo’s internally displaced have begun to organize themselves to head in shifts to Saraqib, a town about 30 minutes away in rural Idlib, every two or three days.
The water they bring back is split among the dozens of families who’ve banded together in a barren area of southern Aleppo province near the village of Sheikh Ahmed.
“Every family gets a little amount, but is barely enough to cover the basics for the next few days,” said Um Ali. “We have been trying to conserve, but there is a minimum amount that we need, and we cannot do with any less.”
Khaled, 12, tries his best to entertain his younger siblings, hoping they won’t realize the true gravity of their situation. “We miss our home. We don’t like it here. It is very cold. I hope we can go back home as soon as possible,” he said.
These are people who have stuck it out in an area plagued by near constant fighting since 2013. But most say the increased airstrikes over the last few months – most likely from Russian jets – was the last straw. It was impossible for them to stay any longer.
“Our lives have been difficult over the last five years,” said Hussam, a 27-year-old farmer from al-Wadeeebi, “but this is a new low.”
“We’ve left our houses and possessions behind to live in tents. The borders are closed and we have no income. What if the situation doesn’t end soon?” he asked. “What are we to do then?”
On the road heading south, connecting Aleppo with Idlib, there are many families like Hussam’s. As global diplomats check into hotels in Vienna this weekend to talk about Syria, Hussam and his family will be sleeping in makeshift tents, awaiting the unknown.
Top image: Amjad Al-Saleh, whose family fled their home in Marea due to Syrian government shelling on their house, is comforted by his mother on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012 photo. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)