As It Happens

'No place to go': Syrian doctor says more than 700,000 Idlib residents stranded

More than 700,000 civilians have tried to flee fighting in Syria's north-west Idlib province since December, but with a closed Turkish border, people are effectively trapped.

Civilians are fleeing Syria's last rebel stronghold, but Turkey has closed the border

Civilians leave Idlib province to find safety, Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. (The Associated Press)
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More than 700,000 civilians have tried to flee fighting in Syria's north-west Idlib province since December, but with a closed Turkish border and sub-zero temperatures, residents remain effectively trapped.

The exodus was sparked by a renewed military offensive by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russian air power, to recapture Syria's last rebel stronghold — where millions have fled during the nine-year civil war. 

Dr. Mohamad Abrash is a surgeon who splits his time between Turkey and Idlib. He spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about how civilians are managing on the ground.

Displaced Syrians flee the town of Sarmada in Idlib province, Syria, January 28, 2020. (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)

Dr. Abrash every time we speak with you the situation in Idlib has been worse. And now we're told that it's the most desperate there that we've seen since the war began. Can you describe what you have seen in Idlib?

Yes, the situation [has] become worse and worse, day by day.

No more hospitals … around Idlib, in the periphery. We only have two hospitals inside Idlib City. 

People don't know what to do, where to go, where to stay.  

But what's clear to them is that they can't stay where they are … they have to get out.

Yes they have to leave their homes … They are facing difficulties in travelling as well. There is not enough cars and [there] is only one main road.

The road is too crowded, and there's been accidents during this displacement. And the weather is very bad. It is snowing this morning … No heating, no electricity, no food.

People walk past destruction by the government airstrikes in the town of Ariha, Idlib province, Syria, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020. (Ghaith Alsayed/The Associated Press)

And a lot of these people, if not most of them, are women and children. So where are they sleeping at night?

They are sleeping under a tent. If they find any building, they stay more than 20 to 30 people inside one room.

My relatives, all 20 people, they are living in one house only ... and there is not enough water.  

We're talking now about 700,000 civilians just since these past two months, who have been on the move — 100,000 just in these recent weeks. Where are they trying to get to?

Most of them are coming to get to the Turkey border … they are trying to cross the border to travel to Europe.

[But] Turkish soldiers are protecting their border and they are shooting the people who are trying to jump over the wall.

Turkey has closed its border and is not allowing any more of the refugees in.

Yes, it's closed … no more refugees. There [are] some illegal ways [people] are trying — to go through mediators, paying too much money to get into Turkey. It is only a few cases [where] they succeed.

Dr. Mohamad Abrash will be returning to Iblid because otherwise there we will be no one to cover his shift at the hospital, he said. (Submitted by Dr. Mohamad Abrash)

Can you describe the actual military offensive that is ... taking place right now in Idlib?

I was in Idlib and we are hearing the bombing ... our hospital is shaking. 

Each time we hear this bombing, really we are feeling that bombs [are] coming to us. We are working under stress. We cannot give our best medical treatment to the injured civilians because each time [we] are feeling that we will be targeted.

What effect does that have on the children?

They have psychological problems. When they are hearing this bombing or hearing the jet sound[s], some children are urinating on themselves. Really. And they start to cry and they start escaping to their mothers ... saying to them "help us, we are going to die." 

You can not imagine the situation for the children, how they are feeling. 

I was reading one particular story about a mother who is alone, she has five children. And the reporter found her putting mats down on the ground to sleep for the night. That's the only place she had to go. Are you seeing that where people … as they move they have no place to go? 

Yeah there is no where left to go … If you travel you will see many tents on the right side and the left side of the road, and so on. But some families are staying under the trees without any tent even.

Syrian refugees head northwest through the town of Hazano in Idlib province as the flee fighting, on Jan. 27, 2020. (Ghaith Alsayed/The Associated Press)

What hope do you have that there are any players outside of the region who are going to try and bring this to an end,  at least get a cease fire in the region so people can stop being on the move?

I think [The United Nations] doesn't need this war to end. This is our feeling inside Syria … They are just watching this film. 

We need our rights. We need to live in peace. We need our dignity, and nobody is listening to us.

They are not concerned about civilians at all … they are not looking at us as human beings.  

Now you are heading back to Idlib City tomorrow [to help at the hospital]. What do you expect? What do you think you're going to encounter there and your travels back.

Of course we will face some difficulties, and I hope I can feel safe.

We have lost the future. We are living only day-by-day. Tomorrow we'll see what will happen. … But still I have to take care of myself and go through it … And God will help us in some way.


Written by Sarah Claydon. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong.

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