Over the past six weeks, intensified fighting in Dara'a Governorate, southern Syria, resulted in a surge of 30,000 internally displaced people. In Dara'a City, an offensive launched in February by Syrian opposition forces against the Syrian army was followed by violent advances by IS-affiliated groups in the southwestern part of the governorate. Syrian government forces subsequently entered the areas in a bid to recapture lost territory.
The people of Dara'a are caught in the middle of these clashes. For them, airstrikes, suicide bombs, assassinations, and constant fighting have become violent fixtures of their lives. In search of safety, many Syrians in Dara'a have fled to surrounding farmlands, but there is very little shelter for them there. Some, without money or resources to move elsewhere, have been forced to return to villages previously abandoned and destroyed.
Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is responding to this new crisis with an emergency distribution of 893 kits of essential relief items, distributed to families in two ares: farmlands just east of Dara'a City and the nearby village of Al Nuaymah. Here, an MSF pharmacist who helped organize the distribution describes the conditions on the ground and the challenges thousands of Syrians still face just trying to survive.
What is the situation on the ground in southern Syria where MSF distributed the kits?
We distributed relief items in two areas. Both are on the front lines of the conflict. The situation is incredibly dangerous. People in Al Nuaymah are there because they have no other choice; they are poor and don't have any money to leave their village or move to other houses. If they had money they would rent a home far from the trouble. Unfortunately, their village is the only option they have. As for people in the farmlands around Dara'a, they don´t even have that. They live in tents, buildings meant for water tanks, and wells or other structures that have been destroyed. Eighty percent of the buildings in the area are in ruins.
What are the living conditions like?
People have tried to cope by replacing the doors and windows with plastic. Some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have provided carpets. Families sleep on the floor. There are five or seven people in one room. There are some children, but a lot of elderly people. People are very kind. They invited us to have tea and coffee inside their tents. We saw their miserable situation. We felt the temperatures inside their tents. They are accustomed to the violence and these conditions. To us, it felt like an oven. People were using wood fires for heat and there is no ventilation. It is very dangerous.
How are families coping with the situation?
The strangest thing is that people are adapting to the violence. We saw children looking up at the sky, watching the airplanes as they bombed Dara'a City. It is really strange. The sky is full of airplanes. The fighting is still happening. At one point, while we were distributing, there was some bombing nearby but it didn't interrupt our work. Like I said, people have adapted to this situation.
Besides the bombings—which must be a constant worry—what other challenges did MSF teams face during the distributions?
MSF distributes differently than other NGOs. Normally, NGOs go to one place in a village, a crowd of people gather, and the goods are distributed one by one. In southern Syria, the violence means we cannot risk creating those crowds. It's just so dangerous and we may be targeted. In Al Nuaymah, the city council helped us manage the process. They hired trucks that moved between the houses and the front lines. This way we avoided creating a crowd. In the farmlands, the road is muddy and you cannot move freely. So we take the items to certain places and distribute to several families at a time. We managed to get these kits to people who needed them.
Why are the relief kits so important?
People living in the farmlands really have nothing. They are far from the market and there is no clean water; no safe sources of heat; scarce food. Al Nuaymah has water distributed by tanks and there is some food but the living conditions are still very terrible. The relief kits contain things like soap and hygiene items which are useful in infection control. With mattresses and blankets, people can rest more easily. When we distribute these kits, we prevent infections.
How do you see the situation evolving?
I fear the situation will become worse. To the west of the area, IS-affiliated groups are mounting attacks on villages. People have no choice but to move towards Dara'a City. The civic council has informed us that they expect thousands more people. Last week alone 2,000 people moved into the area.
Our distribution is complete. People were grateful to receive the kits and this makes me feel good, but I know there is so much more work to be done.