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Photo Essay: Inside Syria’s City of Tents

By Ahmed Deeb 

The Atmeh refugee camp sits just cross the border from Turkey, inside Syria. It is not one organized camp, but a series of small tent cities that have sprung up since the start of the war as people began to be displaced by fighting. There are more than six million people displaced inside Syria, and more than two million in neighboring states. Estimates place the total population of Atmeh refugee camp at around 30,000 persons. The camp is steadily growing in population.

On Friday April 11, 2014 a chemical attack in the northern town of Kafr Zita devastated the region controlled by the Free Syrian Army. The attack reportedly wounded around 200 people, killed two, and forced many of the Atmeh refugees into their desperate situation where they remain today.

Assad’s planes bombed Kafr Zita with explosive barrels that produced thick smoke and poisonous odors. All the victims suffered from the same symptoms: trouble breathing, fits of suffocation, coughing up blood, redness of the eyes, and a strong flow of spittle.

"We only took the worst cases to the larger hospitals," says one medic. "Then we had to evacuate everyone when the gas reached the ward and the smell of chlorine got stronger and stronger." He says five people died at the hospital.

The Atmeh refugee camp is home to those who survived and fled. 

Recently, I traveled to the camp to document the conditions the Syrian refugees are living in at the camp in an effort to tell their story. 

"I wash my children [with] polluted water and they drink from it because we don't have a source for the water, and my child became sick because of that" a 30-year-old, Syrian woman said. 

More than 50 children in the camp have been reported to have been in critical condition because of chlorine gas in the chemical attack.

"We depend on the foreign aids to live. Recently Jabhat al-Nusra and a Turkish organization were distributed some foods, sweets, and toys for the children," a Syrian man said.

The living conditions in the Atmeh camp are so bad, they are next to unlivable. Most of the families don’t even have tents or a place in which to live. Instead, many are forced to live under trees and sheets. There is no access to running water or a sewage system.

According to the Syrian opposition, the attack that created the Atmeh refugee population is just one of over 60 such attacks using chemical weapons across 15 different locations in Syria.

For the Syrians living at the camp, living in nearby Turkey is out of the question. The cost of living is simply too high.

"I hate to live in a tent[…]I want to go [to] my home to play with my neighbors and friends and to go to my school to study but I'm scared of the bombing" a child said to me.

One Syrian refugee described the health crisis at the camp. "Most of the people here [are] suffering of suffocation and heart diseases because of the chlorine gas but no one cares about us, we have shortage in the medicines," he said. 

For these refugees, surviving in the refugee camp is about standing by their families, friends, and neighbors. In the words of one refugee, "Syria is our land and we won't leave our neighborhoods which we [were] born and grew up in, maybe it is taking a long time to end this war, but we have the patience."

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Ahmed Deeb is a Palestinian photojournalist based in Istanbul, Turkey.

[All photos copyrighted Ahmed Deeb.]

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