As violence escalates in the northeastern governorate of Raqqa, families have been fleeing their homes to poorly equipped temporary shelters and camps in the area. While UNICEF is responding to the immediate needs of uprooted families, access to the area has been highly restricted for the past four years.
By Massoud Hassan and Yasmine Saker
Raqqa, Syrian Arab Republic, 4 June, 2017 – Reem, 19, thought long and hard before taking the courageous decision to flee Raqqa almost three weeks ago. It was just before midnight when she grabbed her 10-month-old baby girl and a few belongings, and started a journey that would bring them more misery.
Forced to marry her cousin when she was only 16, Reem now cares for their daughter, Sadil, on her own. Her husband abandoned them while she was pregnant.
“It was never my plan to get married so young,” says Reem. “I wanted to continue my education and go to university.”
The lesser of two evils
Reem and her daughter are among almost 40,000 people forced to flee their homes as fighting has escalated in Raqqa over the past few weeks. Since November 2016, unrelenting violence in the governorate has displaced 107,000 people. Intensified attacks and shelling have destroyed infrastructure and shattered civilian lives.
Violence is not the only force driving people from their homes. Children and their families have suffered immensely over the past four years, with little in the way of relief. Insecurity and restrictions on the delivery of humanitarian assistance have severely constrained access to the area. The last United Nations inter-agency aid convoy to reach Raqqa was in October 2013.
People living in Raqqa endure additional hardships. They contend with the restrictions imposed on education and other aspects of daily life, and are deprived of the most basic services while paying high prices for commodities.
“In my city, pens and paper are banned,” says Reem. “Women and their new-borns die because they have to give birth at home with no medical attention. Children get killed by landmines; those as young as 9 get recruited and are forced to fight – and they come back to their families in coffins. This is not the life I want for my daughter.”
“I had to choose the lesser of two evils,” she explains. “Either let my daughter live this life, with no access to health care, education or a normal childhood, or take the risky decision to leave.”
A risky road to safety
Together with a few neighbours who were also fleeing the northeastern city, Reem drove deep into the desert, travelling westwards for hours, towards Al-Jurneyyeh. The group stayed at a makeshift camp for two nights before continuing the dangerous journey on foot.
“We had to walk through a mine field,” says Reem, remembering the fear-filled moments she lived through. “I was carrying my daughter and thinking to myself, we could die in an explosion any minute.”
The group then had to pass through a long, dark tunnel filled with water. For three hours, they walked hunching their backs, through waist-deep water.
“I was carrying my daughter on my back to make sure she didn’t swallow water,” she recalls. “She cried for the entire walk through the tunnel, until she finally fell asleep from exhaustion.”
Dire living conditions
When Reem and her neighbours finally reached safety at Mabrouka camp, a temporary shelter housing 2,000 displaced families, they found harsh living conditions. For 10 days, they had limited access to food and water, and slept out in the open – without as much as a blanket to warm themselves.
UNICEF is working to respond to the needs of vulnerable families like Reem’s, by trucking 975,000 litres of water daily to 120,000 internally displaced people in camps in Raqqa and Hassakeh, including Mabrouka, Al-Hol and Ain Issa. UNICEF has installed latrines, showers and water storage tanks in the camps and is distributing family hygiene kits to protect children from waterborne diseases.
Mobile health clinics have been set up to provide primary health care, including immunization services for children and their mothers, and nutritional supplements are distributed on a regular basis.
UNICEF has also set up child-friendly spaces for children to learn and play, which provide psychological support to help children cope with the trauma they have faced. These spaces and activities help provide some structure and a sense of normality into children’s lives.
But these displaced children and their families need so much more. UNICEF calls on all parties involved in the conflict to keep children out of harm’s way at all times, and to grant immediate and unconditional access to life-saving humanitarian assistance for people affected by the violence.
A new life
Reem and baby Sadil made it to the city of Qamishli last week. Reem plans to start a new life there, away from all the hardships she has witnessed.
“I want the whole world to know how much we’ve suffered, but I also want them to know about the new life I want to start,” she says with a smile.
“I will continue my education and attend university. I will achieve my dreams so that I can provide a good life for myself and my daughter.”