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Dublin: 15 °C Wednesday 23 July, 2014

Column: “It’s not uncommon to find four families living in a single tent”

Listening to the stories of people displaced by the conflict in Syria, you become accustomed to horror stories – but never immune to them, writes David Adams.

David Adams

A COUPLE OF days ago, I went with our new Syria country director, Michel Savel, to an IDP (internally displaced person’s) camp, close to a border crossing in the northern part of the country. It’s a relatively new settlement that suddenly sprang up over three or four days during the previous week.

When we visited, it was already home to around two thousand people: a population that’s growing daily, as families continue to flee from the fighting in Idlib and Homs cities, and the countryside surrounding them.

There are 300 tents in the impromptu camp, which isn’t nearly enough to cater to the numbers of IDPs. It’s not uncommon to find four families (20 to 30 people) living, crammed together, in a single tent. The overcrowding must be particularly difficult for the families, given the deeply conservative nature of Syrian society. Unfortunately, that’s the least of their difficulties. Most of them fled from their homes with only what they could carry. They need blankets (as winter has not yet loosened its grip on northern Syria), baby milk, food, water and medical assistance. On top of everything else, the camp has no sanitation facilities, to speak of.

As we walked among the tents, we were mobbed by hordes of children, many of whom were clearly underfed, and some in need of medical attention. Parents besieged us, asking for help, and relating their stories through our interpreter.

After a while in Syria, chatting daily to the innocent victims of this conflict, one becomes accustomed to horror stories, but never immune to them. The victims and their suffering are too real for that to happen. Abstract numbers tumbling out of someone’s mouth on television or radio, or sitting mute on a printed page, are one thing – but the sight, sounds and smells of reality are quite another.

Looking into the face of each new widow, and the eyes of her now-fatherless children, as she recounts how her husband fell victim to a sniper or an aerial bomb, is enough of a safeguard against desensitisation. The heart-breaking empathy one feels for the bereaved parents never lessens, no matter how many times one hears how a beloved child (or children) was lost to them. If ever one does become impervious to human suffering, the horribly maimed or disfigured child, then it surely will be time to seek other employment.

A boy approached us in the camp, with his grubby little hand extended, and introduced us to his grandmother. His parents, it emerged, had both perished in Idlib. A distraught father and mother told us of the only child, a son of 10, they had lost in an explosion. As parents, it was impossible for Michel and me not to try to imagine how they were feeling. But, as parents, we realised that what they are going through is imaginable only to those who have suffered a similar crushing experience. There but for the grace of God…

An elderly lady beckoned to Michel and me as we were about to leave the camp. “I have nothing,” she said, “And my family, or those of them who have survived this far, have nothing, but at least we are free people. We will live or die as free people.” At this, the crowd around us cheered, and gave a victory salute. To witness such defiance in the midst of so much hardship and misery was truly humbling.

David Adams is a Media Officer with GOAL. GOAL is significantly expanding its emergency response programmes to support displaced families in northern Syria. They have supplied blankets and flour to tens of thousands of people to date and are seeking funding to further expand their programmes and reach even more people with this vital aid. To find out more, or to donate to GOAL’s work in Syria, please visit www.goal.ie. All images via Goal.

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