Syria: People in Idlib race to flee airstrikes

MSF teams are on the ground providing life-saving medical care and essential relief items

21 Feb 20

“The bombing started last Thursday night. The only people who stayed in Takad were those who didn’t have a vehicle to leave the town in.”

Dr Mustafa Ajaj manages an MSF-supported primary healthcare centre in the town of Takad, in northwest Syria. Takad was once considered a safe distance from the conflict that has been raging in this area since spring 2019.

Syrian government forces and their Russian allies recently gained control of the highway connecting the cities of Damascus and Aleppo and started pushing west in their bid to recapture the last opposition-held area in the country. 

In the hours before the bombing started, Dr Ajaj told us that he was determined to stay and care his patients, even as schools closed and people started to flee Takad using any means they had.

One of the areas affected by the military offensive in northwest Syria

In the days that followed the bombing around Takad, camps near the town of Sarmadah were bombarded with shells. Tens of thousands of displaced people had recently arrived there seeking safety, but their tents were destroyed and several people were wounded.

It’s not the first time camps have been hit since the start of the military offensive in the spring of 2019. Schools, markets, hospitals and health centres, including MSF-supported facilities, have also been damaged.

In Al Atareb and Darat-Izaa, hospitals have closed due to the danger, which means there is now no functioning hospital in rural west Aleppo province. 

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Nowhere left to run

Since 1 December 2019, encroaching airstrikes and shelling have forced more than 875,000 people in northwest Syria to flee, according to the UN.

Many have been forced to move several times, leaving behind their homes, possessions and livelihoods.

Camps are overcrowded, while towns considered “safe” have no room for new arrivals, forcing people to pitch tents on hill and roadsides, or sleep out in the open.

“The closer you get to the Turkish border, the more tents there are,” says an MSF doctor working in Deir Hassan camp, 30 km west of Aleppo.

MSF teams distribute relief items such as blankets and hygiene kits to people displaced by violence in northwest Syria

Last week, temperatures in northwest Syria plunged below freezing and heavy snow blocked many roads.

People fleeing the violence are living in harsh conditions with little protection from the winter cold. 

MSF is aware of a family of four who died of suffocation after burning poor quality fuel to heat their tent.

“Our situation is very bad,” a father told the MSF team during an aid distribution in a camp. “No heating. No bread. No water. We are burning the leaves of olive trees to get warm.”

“A desperate situation”

Medical staff at MSF’s mobile clinic have treated many people for respiratory infections as a result of their living conditions and the winter weather. They have also seen a significant number of pregnant women and children in recent weeks.

As well as providing medical care, our teams are distributing essential relief items to new arrivals in rural Idlib.

A child is checked for signs of malnutrition at the MSF mobile clinic in Qadimoon camp, northwest Syria

Since 1 December 2019, we have distributed blankets, winter clothes and hygiene kits to over 13,000 people in more than 20 camps and informal settlements, as well as heating materials to keep people warm.

We have also provided tens of thousands of people in camps with clean drinking water. But it’s not enough.

“People are facing a desperate situation,” says Julien Delozanne, MSF country director for Syria.

“The people fleeing north are being squeezed into a territory that is getting smaller and smaller, between the frontline to the east and the closed Turkish border to the west. If the military operation continues, a new influx of people to the area will make the situation even worse.”

The search for safety

Back in Takad, after resisting the violence by refusing to budge, Dr Ajaj has had to change his views. With the bombing so close, he was left with no choice but to leave with his wife and five children in search of safety.

“We are moving our medical supplies to a nearby town,” he explained. “I am still looking for a safe space where can resume our healthcare activities. For the people of Takad, we have left behind a few basic medical supplies.

“It’s so hard now.”