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Displaced Syrians From Idlib Province Set Up Tent Camps Near Turkey's Border


There's a massive wave of civilians seeking safety in northern Syria - up to a million since the start of December. And we're going to hear from some of them now. They are fleeing an offensive by the government and Russian forces against the last rebel-held province, Idlib. Tent camps in the cold winter have been springing up near the border with Turkey. NPR's Deborah Amos in Beirut reached some of those in the line of fire.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: The messages come late at night, when it's dark in Idlib and the lights are still on in Beirut. There's a familiar ring...


AMOS: ...Not from a cell phone - the signal's too weak - but on WhatsApp, an Internet messaging service.

MOHAMMED ALA AL-DIN: Hello. My name is Mohammed Ala al-Din (ph). Talking to Deb Amos. I live here in northern Syria, Idlib City. I can see many people fleeing their homes. The situation here is really catastrophic.

AMOS: Ala Din is an English teacher, now an aid worker in the largest city in Idlib province. He's opened his home to some of the displaced.

ALA DIN: Actually, I'm supporting three families other than my family. So I'm barely able to manage. That's it.

AMOS: Another message comes in from activist Abdul-Khafi al-Hamdo (ph). He was living in a village that was suddenly on the front lines.

ABDUL-KHAFI AL-HAMDO: The planes started targeting us with many rockets. I just take my daughter, my son and my wife and run away on my motor bike. I got nothing with me now. And I can't go back because the regime is so close.

AMOS: Regime and Russian airstrikes in the rebel-held province has targeted hospitals, schools and bakeries and killed more than a thousand civilians in the past two months. The U.N. is pleading for a cease-fire. The Syrian army advance has been so rapid, the roads are jammed with cars and trucks, says Fouad Sayed Issa. He's the founder of Violet, a Syrian nonprofit aid agency.

FOUAD SAYED ISSA: I saw the thousands of families in their car. And they're trying to find a shelter for their children. We registered more than 10,000 families still under the trees (ph). The weather is so bad. It's minus 5 in the night.

AMOS: He says the scale of needs is overwhelming. His volunteers deliver plastic sheeting for those without tents and serve hot meals in the Idlib city stadium. But he can only feed about 20% of the new arrivals.

ISSA: We are trying to help all the people in the streets, in the road, but there is thousands of families there.

AMOS: Half-built houses with no doors, no windows, no electricity are filled with families. But as the offensive advances panic, people are heading north, hoping to find a place in camps closer to the Turkish border, says Mohammed Ala Din, the aid worker. They flee with little more than the clothes they have on.

ALA DIN: Most people here can't afford renting a pickup to take their luggage and furniture with them. This is why they are leaving everything behind them.

AMOS: He says it's now $70 for a 15-mile trip, an impossible sum for families who will now have to depend on humanitarian aid to survive.

ALA DIN: It's like a journey to the unknown.

AMOS: Even aid workers are now displaced. Ahmed Khalid (ph), a translator for a charitable organization, found shelter with his younger siblings in a new tent camp near the Turkish border. But it's still not safe, he says.

AHMED KHALID: So we hear voices of airstrikes and artillery fires. So my brothers awake - and frightening. Actually, the life is so hard, but there is no other choice. There is nowhere safe to go.

AMOS: This is the calculation for those living with this war. Doctors in the remaining functioning hospitals are making plans to evacuate if the airstrikes continue. Aid workers fear the border roads used to deliver relief supplies will be cut off. Everyone is trying to buy time to stay alive, hoping that someone can deliver a ceasefire. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Beirut.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.