independent

Saturday 19 April 2014

A life in exile for the invisible victims of a forgotten war

Forced to flee their homes, refugees from the Syrian conflict are struggling to adapt to their new surroundings. Photojournalist Mark Condren and reporter Jason O'Brien meet them in Harem, Syria

ABO Staif slings his slightly battered Kalashnikov over his shoulder, lights a cigarette and explains how his 70-year-old mother left the family home for the final time.

"She had to run for her life -- imagine a woman that age being forced to run," he says, shaking his head slightly as he details the raid by Syrian army troops.

"They were looking for me and my brothers, but they only found my mother and my wife. So they set the place on fire."

Staif, who has a university degree, previously worked as an Arabic-English translator, and his family was comfortably middle class until last September, their air-conditioned home in Harem containing most of the comforts familiar to us in Ireland. His wife is a teacher, and one of his daughters had been studying physical therapy in university.

But they spent the winter living in a small, derelict office block 25km away, with no running water or electricity and an improvised -- and intermittent -- heating system, while Staif fought with the Ayman Al Sabir rebels against government forces in Harem.

"My family was one of the first in the building so they got a spot near the stove," he says. "But it was very difficult for all of us."

The temptation, of course, is to focus on his difficulties alone, given he was involved in a two-month siege as a group of 400 rebels attempted to 'starve out' around 500 government troops and hired mercenaries while being bombarded by air strikes.

But the violence, atrocities and killings -- 6,000 were killed here in March in the bloodiest month to date -- can't always be the focus in war.

In total, more than five million Syrians have been forced to leave their homes since the conflict broke out in March 2011.

More than 1.7 million have fled to neighbouring countries -- but an estimated 3.6 million remain inside.

And if Syria is the "forgotten war" with the world's attention drawn towards North Korea and away from another complicated Middle Eastern conflict, then these Syrians are the largely overlooked victims in a forgotten war.

Many, like Staif's family, were comfortable.

Even now, they are not destitute or fleeing famine, but what they once had has been destroyed, and both their immediate and longer-term futures look bleak.

Because they haven't made it out of the country, they are not recognised as refugees by the United Nations -- instead classed as 'internally displaced people' -- and humanitarian organisations have major difficulties getting to them to provide help.

The Syrian government's restrictions on aid convoys have meant most supplies are distributed in government-held areas in the south, but many Syrians are heading north into rebel-controlled areas to escape more volatile areas.

The rebels "liberated" Harem two months ago, and the population -- which had dropped below 1,000 -- has mushroomed to more than 20,000, swelled by families fleeing the front line 50km to the south at Idlib.

"We are trying to get used to this way of life, but it is difficult as it is not at all what we are used to," says Mazen, the head of a group of 20 families now living in a former school in Harem.

There is little water, no plumbing, no electricity, no windows and no space for the 170 people crammed in.

Children run around the yard, playing football -- happy to be allowed outside by mothers who previously kept them inside, a little safer from the regular aerial bombardment.

"We lived in a small village, but the men had jobs," Mazen, who doesn't want to give his full name, explains. "They are drivers and shopkeepers and hotel staff and so on. We hope to go back."

He was speaking to Barry Andrews, chief executive of Irish aid agency GOAL, one of a handful of agencies with a permanent base in northern Syria. "You can't but be moved by the human story here," Mr Andrews said afterwards.

"People at home might struggle to connect with it. Sometimes you dismiss certain countries as being hopelessly violent, but a staggering humanitarian situation like this requires advocates to explain exactly what the need is and I have seen how important it is that these people get the support to live with dignity."

Back in the centre of Harem, Abo Staif finishes his shift at a checkpoint in the town and walks to the site of his former home. He wants to start the rebuilding process. But it's difficult to know where to begin.

* To help GOAL's work with Syrian refugees, visit www.goal.ie or call 01-2809779

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