You hear it first as a faint whir, off in the distance. Soon, it becomes a dull rumble, steadily increasing in volume. By the time the airplane flies overhead, it announces its arrival with a loud and plaintive roar.
For most of us, the sound of an airplane overhead is a benign sound, conjuring images of vacations, business trips, or scenic skies. But for residents of the Atmeh displaced persons camp in Syria, the dull rumble of an approaching plane evokes panicked hysteria: “It was chaos,” said rebel commander Abu Laith, describing residents’ reaction to a recent MiG plane flyover. “Over 10,000 people running for the olive groves.”
In Syria, the roar of a plane sounds like death; it signals that someone is about to die. Dr. Hassan Masri, an activist physician, recently entered Syria to treat the wounded. One night, he awoke startled to a loud bang announcing the Syrian Revolution’s latest casualties:
“I woke up just a little ago in panic after the ground started shaking from under me. I thought we were getting bombed and that I was going to die. It turns out it was the villages around us getting bombed…Apparently the Syrian regime has decided to start the New Year by dropping at least 6 barrels of explosive TNT around us. I moved closer to the door of the emergency room and heard the caravan of ambulances coming from a distance. I dread those moments when I see people with their organs blown up or half of their face gone.”
Many thousands of Syrians have fled the country, traumatized and wounded, after witnessing the grotesque aftermath of such bombings. In July 2012, before the government began airstrikes on populated areas, UNHCR had registered roughly 93,000 refugees. Now, the total exceeds 665,000. Syrians who fled to Jordan carry “little more than the clothes on their back,” according to UNHCR. Those who flee to Lebanon, through dangerous minefields, are often cramped together in unfinished buildings. Conditions are somewhat better in Turkey, but Turkish refugee camps are full. This leaves 13,000 people stranded at Atmeh camp, just across the border.
Yakzan Shishakli, who administers aid for Atmeh residents, recently wrote to Syrian Expatriates Organization describing the desperate conditions there:
“The camp is in dire need of medical supplies and medical attention. Many of the men, women and children have preexisting or recently-developed diseases such as cancer, asthma, and diabetes, including some terminal illnesses. Most families arrive malnourished and distressed. Without the funding to provide for at least their basic necessities, their situation will only worsen…As we cannot give the refugees their homes back, we can at least give a sense of normalcy, especially to the displaced children that are our priority. It is devastating to see their health and well-being deteriorate while they patiently wait. We need any and all help immediately.”
The UN estimates that 2.5 million Syrians have fled their homes for locations elsewhere in Syria, and many of them live in desperate conditions, as in Atmeh. It is past time for the international community to give displaced Syrians the basic normalcy they deserve. Human Rights Watch, citing “horrendous living conditions” in opposition areas of Syria, has called upon governments to support relief NGOs in these areas, with or without Assad regime approval. We would like to second this call, so Atmeh residents can live full lives, instead of alternating between helpless inaction as their children deteriorate, and frenzied panic at the sound of a dull roar overhead.
Mazen Hasan, M.D., the Chairman of the Syrian Expatriates Organization a leading nonprofit organization of Syrian-Americans and Syrian-Canadians that reflects the unique diversity, talents and abilities of the Syrian nation. Its mission is to support the establishment of a free and democratic Syria. In addition, the SEO provides humanitarian relief to those in need and works to promote the social, political and economic development of Syria.