Syrian Purgatory

As winter clutches northern Syria, thousands displaced by the civil war take cold comfort in a temporary tent city.

ATMEH, Syria — Um Ibrahim shivered in the rain outside her tent. It was less than 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and the winter wind cut to the bone. When I asked why she didn't have a blanket like everyone else at the Atmeh refugee camp, she shrugged and looked down. "I sold it to buy bread for my children."

While the world is abuzz with news that 60,000 Syrians have died so far in the 22-month-old civil war, it is the roughly 3 million refugees and internally displaced persons who are suffering daily. At camps such as Atmeh, located less than 1,000 feet from the border with Turkey, they are struggling to survive without heat, electricity, or adequate sanitation. The meager rations provided by a smattering of small NGOs leave them scrounging in order to keep their hunger at bay.

The camp's managers, employed by the Syrian-American Maram Foundation, based in Houston, Texas, do what little they can. But understaffed and underfunded, the most they can offer on many occasions are encouraging words and hope that the next day's aid shipment will alleviate the suffering of the camp's 13,000 residents -- mostly from Syria's northern Idlib province. For Um Ibrahim, such supplies cannot come quick enough. Unable to feed her nine children on the daily bread ration, she sold her camp-issued blanket to pay for another bag of loaves. Now she spends her nights huddled with her children for warmth.

Camp residents not only complain of paltry provisions, but also erratic service. "We get two meals a day," said 70-year-old Said Ahmad, a retired farmer from the village of Salut Zuhar. "But there are no specific times. Sometimes breakfast comes at 2 p.m. and dinner much later." When the food does arrive, it looks more like a selection of bite-size hors d'oeuvres than a full-course meal. The first offering is often limited to one piece of bread, small packets of butter, and jelly or chocolate spread, topped off with a few olives. The small rations have forced residents to improvise. Those lucky enough to have extra bread leave the desiccated crumbs out to soak. When the rain rehydrates them, they eat the edible portions. "We are learning new uses for food every day," notes Ziyyad Najib, a 35-year-old taxi driver from Idlib.

Water is slightly more plentiful, but like most supplies at Atmeh, it also runs out too soon. The four to five 1-liter bottles that each of the roughly 1,300 tents receives every day are always empty before the sun sets. Residents then refill them at water trucks, the contents of which are often of substandard quality. "It's not clean water," complained Anwar Sharqi, a 51-year-old mechanic from Killi. "It comes from wells that villagers use only for washing, not drinking."

Most shortages are due to how supplies are rationed. Each family is only allotted six bags of food. But families vary in size, forcing members of some families to split the already-limited provisions among them. And life in a shared tent is just as difficult as sharing food. The 180-square-foot canvass dwellings sag under the weight of the elements and occasionally collapse. As the rain seeps under the flaps, the cold earth softens into clay, leaving behind a pit of mud.

In late December, when I visited Atmeh, a bulldozer was carving up the earth behind the camp's communal bivouac shelter, which doubles as a mosque. Workers placed black pipes in the excavated areas and connected them to a nearby concrete structure, which had been built to house bathrooms. The temporary camp was taking on a permanence few want, but everyone desperately needs.

But provisions are slow in coming. Unlike the dozen other camps spread out across Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, Atmeh does not receive funding from international organizations like the U.N. World Food Program or the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Such organizations are barred by international law from operating in countries without the consent of the government. "It is a completely fluid situation," said UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards. "We at the moment do not have an operational presence in places like Atmeh.… That would be for OCHA to negotiate with Syria," he said, referring to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

But with Damascus reluctant to allow international organizations to operate in rebel-held territories, it is left to tiny NGOs like the Maram Foundation to foot the $3,000 to $4,000 daily bill for meals, gas, and water in Atmeh. Other small NGOs bear some of the operating costs. The Turkish Red Crescent, for example, supplied the tents and provides breakfast. The International Medical Corps pays the camp's three to four doctors (depending on the day), and the International Rescue Committee provided roughly 1,300 winterization kits, one for each tent.

Every day, however, roughly 100 new Syrians arrive in Atmeh, stretching the camp's resources even thinner. "The shelling [forced] us from our village," explained 38-year-old Sabah Jauda, who fled her home in Kafar Taal. "We tried to outlast it as long as we could, but then the regime soldiers set fire to my house. My son fights with the Free [Syrian] Army, so that was [President Bashar] al-Assad's revenge on me."

As the Syrian government has intensified its bloody campaign in recent months, the flow of refugees into Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey has steadily increased. Today, more than 508,000 Syrians have fled the country, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Another 2.5 million, like the residents of Atmeh, are internally displaced, according to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

Once they arrive in Atmeh, however, refugees have trouble putting the horrors of war behind them. The regime has targeted Free Syria Army positions near the camp, and the loud explosions caused by heavy weaponry frequently wake residents. But at Atmeh's makeshift clinic, composed of two adjoining trailers, it's not bombs that are killing refugees -- it is lack of medicine and proper sanitation. The camp's medical staff treats roughly 300 people per day for diseases ranging from tonsillitis to gastrointestinal ailments. Every day, an average of three toddlers contract bronchitis, but there is little the medical staff can do. "We don't have enough [breathing] masks for everyone," explains Hassan al-Khawam, a 26-year-old general practitioner. "So we sterilize the masks and reuse them."

The poor sanitary conditions are taking their toll. Children are contracting hepatitis A from contaminated food, and cholera has afflicted some of the older residents. Their suffering is prolonged by a lack of medication. "We just don't have what we need here," explained Khawam as he rubbed the stomach of a dazed child.

At the end of the day, however, the responsibility for keeping Atmeh running falls to Yakzan Shishakly, the head of Maram. During the day, the 34-year-old, who sports scraggly hair and an unkempt beard, has no time to speak. His cell phone constantly hums with requests, problems, and queries from headquarters, other aid organizations, and others trying to help. At night, he makes the trek back to Turkey to procure new supplies.

From purchasing fuel for the generators to procuring potatoes for the residents, Shishakly and his small staff are getting a crash course in refugee camp management. But if his time as an owner of an air-conditioning company in Houston did not prepare him to manage Atmeh, his pedigree certainly did. Shishakly's grandfather Adib was president of Syria from 1953 to 1954 -- and his family name earns him instant respect throughout Syria.

In Atmeh, however, it's Shishakly's hard work that has won the refugees' admiration. "Yakzan is there for us, to help with everything," said Jauda, gratefully. Shishakly grinned bashfully, but his smile quickly dissipated when his cell phone rang with the latest crisis. "Problems with aid delivery," Shishakly relayed with a sigh of exhaustion. But he quickly found a second wind. "Tomorrow we'll try to resolve it," he said before trudging back across the border.



Paris Murder Mystery

Who's behind the assassination of three Kurdish women in the heart of the French capital?

PARIS — At first, it sounded like a horror story torn from the pages of American tabloids: the corpses of three women were found on the second floor office of an apartment building on Jan. 10. Two of the women had bullets holes in the back of their heads, the third was shot in the stomach and the forehead.

But this was here, in Paris, and just down the street from La Gare Du Nord, the city's main train station. Multiple murders don't happen often in the French capital. Guns, while very gradually becoming more common in parts of France, are rarely used by anyone other than authorities. Sometimes though, they are used by hit-men, terrorists, or hit-men hired by terrorists.

So when suited men pushed a bright blue gurney holding a small, limp corpse past journalists and passersby in the working class 10th arrondissement on Thursday afternoon, it brought home how different gun violence is here. This wasn't a random crime, a brutal robbery, a mentally ill person, or someone bullied until they retaliated, aided by easy access to guns. This was, as French authorities quickly recognized, a triple execution, almost certainly by a professional killer, apparently using a silencer. The triple murder was so discreet that in a multi-floor building, no one noticed when it happened. The women were, police believe, killed at around 3 p.m. on January 9, but their bodies were not found until after midnight.

Over the next 24 hours, French authorities -- including its anti-terror brigade -- quickly pieced together the key elements of what happened. Their ongoing investigation highlights the international political intrigue and the broader stakes surrounding this attack. Two of the three women were prominent members of France's large Kurdish immigrant community, 90 percent of whom come from Turkey, and the executions took place just as the Turkish media were reporting that Ankara and the militant Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) had come to an agreement aimed at ending nearly the three decades of violence that have claimed as many as 45,000 lives. The PKK is designated a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States, France and the European Union. 

One of those killed was Sakine Cansiz, 55, a well-respected figure in the Kurdish exile community and, Turkish authorities say, a founding member of the PKK. Some Kurds in Paris believed her to be close to Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan, who is currently serving a life sentence in Turkey. Ocalan, who has apparently softened his attitudes on violence since his arrest, is apparently leading the peace talks with the Turkish government from his jail cell. Those talks are said to aim for a step-by-step cessation of hostilities: the PKK is to stop its attacks in March and, soon after, the Turkish state will restore the rights of its Kurdish minority, as well as satisfy some other grievances. It is unclear how the triple murder might affect those negotiations.

A second victim was Fidan Dogan, 32, who ran the Kurdish information center where the bodies were found. She was a representative of the Kurdistan National Congress, which is a Brussels-based coalition of supportive organizations across Europe. The third victim, Leyla Soylemez, is described as a recently arrived twenty-something Kurdish activist. She may well have been in the wrong place, with the wrong people, at the wrong time. Various friends and colleagues told French media that Dogan and Cansiz were aware enough of the dangers they faced in the one-bedroom apartment that acted as the unmarked office for the information center that they made sure to never be alone there, but that may have merely meant a larger death toll when one or both of them were targeted.

Shock over the executions has been sharp. Almost immediately after the discovery of the bodies late at night by friends and colleagues -- who suspected something was up when they noticed the lights were on in the office but the women weren't answering their phones -- word spread quickly through the city's Kurdish community. By morning on Thursday, hundreds of Kurds had gathered outside, in front of quickly installed police barricades. One of the many protest signs said: "We are all PKK!" Another read: "Turkey the assassin, [President] Hollande the accomplice!" Others called for a political solution to the Kurdistan problem. Many protesters, some with tears in their eyes, waved Kurdish flags.

The executions almost immediately unleashed a flurry of conspiracy theories in the crowd, including some on fresh-made protest signs, as to who was behind them. Suspects include the Turkish intelligence, a right-wing nationalist fringe grouping in Turkey called the "Gray Wolves," and Iranian or Syrian authorities who want to destabilize Turkey for being close to the West, the United States, and the French government.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan didn't take long to offer his own theory. He told journalists on Jan. 11 that the murders were likely the result of an internal battle within the PKK. His thin evidence: the killer or killers had gotten into a building with a security door code, and had somehow managed to get into the office without breaking down the door. He also suggested that the killings could have been the work of outside actors looking to sabotage the peace negotiations. 

His opinions are unlikely to carry much weight with Kurdish exiles whose feelings of destabilization are very real. An unidentified young man at the protest on Rue Lafayette summarized the sense of fury, and vulnerability, that the killings instilled in the Kurdish exile community. "Most of the people who are here have endured repression in Turkey. Most are political refugees who came to France, and found that here, too, the repression continues. There are massacres here, too. There is a feeling of anger, of being fed up."

Those who question the interest of French authorities -- who have repeatedly investigated allegations of extortion of Kurdish businesses with a "revolutionary tax" -- in pursuing justice in this murder investigation could take heart from comments that same day by President François Hollande. He declared that he was personally affected by the attack, as he knew one of the victims who "regularly came to meet" him and other political figures. 

But the French president has a very full plate at the moment. In addition to trying to restore the stagnant French economy, keep the euro afloat, and invert the curb on inflation that is approaching 11 percent, Hollande gave the green light on Friday for French troops to take part in a military intervention in Mali. Since Hollande's inauguration in May, Kurdish concerns have hardly been a pressing issue, and it is no surprise that he wants to wait for the investigation to advance before commenting further.

Kurds do have decades-old links to Hollande's Socialist party. A large wave of Kurdish immigrants came to France for economic reasons in the 1960s and 1970s, but those who followed in the 1980s tended to be more politically inclined activists. And they managed to convince then-President François Mitterrand's wife, Danielle, to raise awareness about the hardships and discrimination that they faced in Turkey and in parts of the Middle East. (Interestingly, when Iraqi Kurds finagled an essentially autonomous region out of the U.S.-led invasion that overthrew Saddam Hussein, it took the wind out of some of their support in Europe.) 

Given the many big issues weighing on Hollande, Kurdish exiles in search of justice for the Paris murders might do well to stir a dead woman's personal link to the French president, to keep him focused on their lost comrades.

How any of this will affect the negotiations between the imprisoned Kurdish leader and Ankara, and what it means for the future of the Turkish Kurds, remains an open question. As is the mystery of who's responsible for three new corpses in Paris.