On the ground in Syria's bloody civil war

By Paul Schemm

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Sept. 24 2012 2:06 p.m. MDT

FILE - In this Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012 file photo, a wounded woman, still in shock, leaves Dar El Shifa hospital in Aleppo, Syria. Two months into the battle for Syria's largest city, civilians are still bearing the brunt of the daily assaults of helicopter gunships, roaring jets and troops fighting in the streets.

Manu Brabo, File, Associated Press

Journalist Paul Schemm was part of a four-member Associated Press team that spent two and a half weeks traveling around Aleppo province in northern Syria, gathering firsthand information on the increasingly bloody rebellion against President Bashar Assad — the longest and deadliest uprising of the Arab Spring.

9/24/2012

Syria's humanitarian crisis set to deepen with onset of cold weather

TEL RIFAAT, Syria — The days are still warm across the fertile plains of northern Syria around Aleppo, but night brings a chill — an ominous harbinger of winter's approach and the deepening of the already severe humanitarian crisis gripping a country wracked by civil war.

Warm temperatures and plentiful food have cushioned the blow somewhat for hundreds of thousands of Syrians displaced from their homes or living in refugee camps across the border. But the arrival of near-freezing temperatures could mean greater suffering and even deaths from exposure, as international aid agencies scramble to cope.

Among the first things to go will be the practice of sleeping outside to avoid the artillery and airstrikes that rain down late night death on homes.

"Most people sleep in the fields at night, out of fear of the bombardments of the towns," said Abu Mohammed, who has taken to sleeping in the olive orchards outside Tel Rifaat, a rebel-controlled town north of Aleppo. "In the winter the suffering will only increase."

Like many people in Syria, he asked that his real name not be used for fear of retribution should the government retake his town.

At a news conference earlier this month, actress Angelina Jolie, a special envoy for the U.N. Refugee Agency, reported that many of the refugees living in camps along the Turkish border were worried about the approach of cold weather.

"It is a very large concern for all of us, and I hope we can all work together to make sure that ... nobody freezes to death in this very frightening time," she said.

As the second winter approaches in an 18-month-old conflict that has claimed more than 20,000 lives, fighting has spread to many more parts of the country and people's resources are dangerously low.

Abu Mustafa, Mohammed's brother, said the family survived last winter on savings, but now the financial situation is much worse.

"Last winter, people had money, but now people have nothing because there is no work," he said. "Most of the work was in Aleppo and most went there for jobs, but now they can't."

An agricultural breadbasket, northern Syria has food, but not everyone can afford it. In many cases, families are forced to flee to refugee camps on the border not only for fear of fighting but because they have run out of money for food.

The length of the conflict is also wearing people down, leaving them even more vulnerable, said Sybella Wilkes of the U.N. Refugee Agency.

"The more people are displaced, the longer they are living in difficult situations of hardship, the more stretched their coping skills are," she said.

The U.N. agency is planning a new international appeal to help the refugees on the borders, as well as those still inside the country, including winterizing tents and distributing blankets and warm clothing.

"Already ... the displaced are suffering from cold in the evening — this is a real concern," Wilkes said. She said the number of registered refugees has far exceeded earlier estimates, growing more than 12-fold from about 20,000 in June to 250,000 today.

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