News Stories, 30 October 2008
AL TANF, Iraq-Syria Border, October 30 (UNHCR) – The UN refugee agency has rushed assistance to hundreds of Palestinian refugees stuck in camps on the Iraq-Syria border after heavy rain and flooding caused chaos and misery.
Rainstorms on Tuesday night left tents inundated with water and sewage, possessions soaked and electricity supplies cut at Al Tanf, a settlement housing almost 800 people in the narrow no man's land between Iraq and Syria. The small mosque was damaged by fire, but there were no human casualties
"This is the closest to hell I can imagine," said Mutassem Hayatla, a UNHCR field officer who stayed in the camp during the downpour. "With no electricity, the camp was full of the sound of crying, terrified children. We did our best, but it was a blessing when the night was over."
Nine-year-old Aya said she was terrified. "The lights were all off, there was water everywhere. My mother was crying. She is pregnant and the baby will come soon. Please get us out before my brother is born. I am scared he will die if we have to live here after she delivers."
The situation was even worse in Al Waleed, a nearby camp hosting more than 1,400 refugees just inside Iraq, where more than 100 families were left homeless after their tents were destroyed in the storm. UNHCR was rushing supplies on Wednesday to both sites, but it was taking longer to get to Al Waleed due to security considerations.
The UNHCR office in Damascus sent new tents, plastic sheeting, blankets and mattresses to Al Tanf on Wednesday, while refugee agency staff on the ground in Al Waleed were waiting for supplies to arrive in Iraq. The worst affected families and elderly Palestinians were moved to the camp school and a clinic.
When the UNHCR aid convoy arrived in Al Tanf on Wednesday morning, residents were recovering their soaked belongings amid the incessant downpour. Trucks thundered past on the Baghdad-Damascus highway which runs beside the camp, throwing up waves of water onto the nearest tents.
Many of the worst affected had moved in with families whose tents had been spared the worst of the damage and pollution caused by the floodwaters. The storm could hardly have come at a worse time, with winter approaching. "We sleep with seven blankets," said Nadia, a mother of three children, including a severely handicapped child. "Now that everything is wet, I don't know how we are going to stay warm."
UNHCR staff in Al Waleed said it had become a muddy quagmire, while flash floods had swept away scores of tents. The sewage system had also overflown in the camp and people were falling ill. "We are already inundated with refugee patients complaining about cold and flu," said a Palestinian refugee doctor.
The flooding is just one more chapter in the ordeal suffered by the Palestinians in Al Tanf and Al Waleed since fleeing their homes in Baghdad to escape threats, kidnapping and violence. They have endured sandstorms, snow in the winter and soaring temperatures in the summer. In Al Tanf, two children have been killed by passing trucks and there have been a couple of major fires.
Some of the refugees have lived at Al Tanf for three years, barred from entering any of the countries neighbouring Iraq. "We cannot go forwards, nor back. We have a road on one side that threatens our children's lives daily, a high wall on the other; in front and behind we have two impenetrable borders," explained Abu Ziyad, a member of the Al Tanf refugee committee.
"Our only hope is resettlement. For the sake of our children, our wives, our elderly, we beg you, please get us out of here," he pleaded.
UNHCR on Thursday reiterated its appeal to the international community to provide resettlement places for Palestinians from Iraq, with no other option currently available for the refugees. "We urge more countries to open their doors to resettle the Palestinian refugees and bring their precarious situation to an end," said Daniel Endres, UNHCR's representative in Iraq.
By Sybella Wilkes in Al Tanf, Iraq-Syria border