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World Health Organization Sounds Alarm About Dire Conditions As Syrians Flee Conflict


As the Senate has been debating pulling out U.S. troops from Syria, more disturbing information has come out today about the conditions for some in that country. The World Health Organization says that in the last two months, at least 29 children have died as their families fled the conflict for a camp in Northeastern Syria. Most died from exposure to the cold on the trip or at the camp itself.

NPR's Ruth Sherlock was there a few days ago. She's left Syria and joins us now on the line. Welcome back, Ruth.


CORNISH: So the WHO is sounding a warning about the conditions for these thousands of people - right? - who are streaming into this camp. Can you tell us what it was like there?

SHERLOCK: I mean, the conditions are just awful. You know, the U.S.-led offensive in Northeastern Syria against ISIS is ongoing. And there's many airstrikes going on, and this is causing so many people to flee. Camp officials told us that as many as 23,000 people have arrived at the camp in just the last eight weeks. So they're overwhelmed, and they just don't have the resources to cope.

Some of the people who arrive at these camps have been walking for days. They don't have the proper clothes. They arrived cold and often wet, soaked to the skin. You know, it was raining when we were there, and they were standing in these long lines, waiting for tents. But there aren't enough tents to go around, so some of these people have to then sleep outside, exposed to the elements. And that's what's causing some of these terrible deaths that the World Health Organization noted.

But there's also another tragic side to this, which is that people who do have heating are exposed to risks from those heaters. They're having to use these kerosene heaters that are very dangerous and can set tents alight. Last week, a 7-year-old girl died in a tent fire in al-Hol camp just a few days before we arrived there. And we've also heard about other similar cases where this has happened.

CORNISH: Right. This is just one camp. What's the overall displacement situation?

SHERLOCK: Well, as much as half of the country's population is displaced internally or outside of the country. That's some 11 million people. And although there's been a trickle of people returning from neighboring Lebanon to Syria, the vast majority still think it's too dangerous to go back either because of the war, which is ongoing, or because they face arrest by the Assad regime. Many are living in awful conditions similar to those that we saw in al-Hol camp.

CORNISH: Syria is a country with multiple conflicts at this point, right? There's the war against ISIS that's being led by the U.S. with local fighters. There's the civil war between the government and rebels that's been going for nearly eight years. Where do these conflicts stand now?

SHERLOCK: Well, there's currently only a little pocket of ISIS left. However, people are concerned that should the U.S. withdraw or should the dynamics change on the ground again, ISIS could still re-emerge. And at the same time in parallel, there's a civil war going on in the country. The Syrian government has the upper hand in that, but rebel forces still control the northern province of Idlib where there are millions of people. And now the Syrian government and the Russians, their allies, have said they might plan to attack that area.

CORNISH: Finally, you were in Northeastern Syria. What were people thinking about this idea of the U.S. withdrawal?

SHERLOCK: People feel angry and betrayed. Kurdish officials say they've lost the lives of thousands of young men and women in the U.S.-backed fight against ISIS, and the U.S. withdrawal could now expose them to new threats - a takeover by the Syrian regime or an attack by Turkey, who says that the authorities - the Kurdish authorities there are allied with militants that it sees as terrorists. But also, you know, Kurdish officials we spoke to said privately they don't necessarily believe the withdrawal will happen as quickly as President Trump would like. They understand the political divisions that are happening in the U.S. over this.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Ruth Sherlock. Ruth, thanks for speaking with us.

SHERLOCK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.

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