Little food, no water and stifling heat: families trapped in the Syrian desert

By Diana Shaw

They are among the 205,000 people that the UN estimates have recently fled Raqqa governorate and now live in extremely basic camps in the desert.

I have worked for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Syria for over a year and have seen and heard a lot.

But what I saw in the camps around Raqqa shocked me profoundly.

People have already gone through immense suffering just to get to the camps that lie dozens of kilometres outside the city.

To escape from Raqqa, they had to cross the Euphrates River. Some were shot at or went missing. Some didn’t survive.

Then they had to walk for days and days, sometimes it even took them weeks, to reach the camps. The outskirts of the city are also littered with landmines.

Families with children. Disabled people and the elderly. All have suffered immensely. When they arrive at the camps, the scene that greets them is inhumane.

Everywhere, children were crying

There is not enough water, food or shelter. Medical care and even toilets are scarce. And the heat is unbearable – it is up to 45 degrees Celsius.

Nobody can bear such high temperatures for a long period. Maybe for hours, but imagine if you were living there for three or four months.

It is especially bad for children. We met so many crying children, their desperate, innocent faces etched with pain in the stifling heat.

One father showed me a picture of a new-born girl on his phone. This should have been a proud moment for him, but the baby had died from the heat and lack of medical care.

One of the camps, Arisha, is on the site of an old petroleum refinery. Toxic waste contaminates the water. But people have no choice and drink it anyway.

“Would you drink this water?” people kept asking me.

“Would you sleep in this place?”

Civilians must be protected

After witnessing these hellish scenes, I did not feel like an ICRC delegate who is coming to help people, but like someone who could also experience what they are going through one day.

What’s the difference between them and me? The only difference is that I was born in a different place, in a different time.

Civilians are not being protected in wars, whether in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, South Sudan or anywhere else. This worrying trend puts every one of us in danger.

Raqqa has not been accessible to the ICRC for four years and we were not was able to deliver aid to its residents.

Those who have recently escaped tell us there is food in Raqqa, but it has become very, very expensive.

Most families cannot afford the cost of a daily meal. They have to adapt to eating, maybe, half a meal per day, or reduce the amount of bread they eat.

Many health facilities and hospitals have been targeted in the fighting so people don’t have access to health care.

One mother told me: “Staying is hell inside Raqqa, but leaving is also hell.”

The ICRC is working with our partner, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, to distribute 6,000 bottles of water in the Arisha camp every day. But it is definitely not enough.

Over the next few weeks, we will distribute clean containers for water, and install enough water tanks and toilets for 2,000 people in Tuheyneya camp.

To help in the longer term, we are also working together to fix water pumping stations damaged or destroyed in the fighting.

Why I still have hope

When the media shows the people of Raqqa, they look dishevelled and helpless. It’s always worth remembering that before the conflict they were just like us, living a normal life in an ancient city.

Like the father bathing his child in dirty water, the people I met in the camps were trying to tell their story to the world.

I often think of the many, many other stories that we didn’t get the chance to hear.

But by sharing those we did hear, I want to honour what they have endured.

Six years of suffering, six years of inhumane conditions: this is too long. We must put an end to it.