Syrians fleeing IS-held Deir Ezzor face harsh conditions
DEIR EZZOR - Syrians fleeing the Islamic State group in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor are taking dangerous smuggling routes through mined territory to reach safety, but harsh conditions await near the Iraqi border.
Hundreds of people have arrived from Deir Ezzor to the Al-Hol camp in northeastern Hasakeh province, particularly after recent heavy fighting between the jihadists and government forces.
The city has been besieged by IS since early 2015, and the group already controlled around half the city before making fresh advances last month.
The assault sparked fierce fighting with government forces and has brought new misery for residents.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said IS sought to prevent people fleeing neighbourhoods under its control by arresting them, opening fire on departing civilians and executing those suspected of smuggling.
Sara, a Deir Ezzor resident in her thirties who did not give her family name, described a harrowing journey to Al-Hol.
"We came here through a smuggling route, across mined areas, and we were very afraid," she said.
"My husband is still there but we have no information about him and it is impossible to make contact with him."
- Cold, sick -
"Our conditions are difficult, we have nothing but canned food and the weather is very cold," Sara said.
Inside the camp, administered by Kurdish authorities with help from the UN refugee agency UNHCR and other humanitarian groups, displaced families lined up for water and fuel.
The UN says more than 500 displaced Syrians, mostly from Deir Ezzor, are currently in Al-Hol, though a local official put the number closer to 800.
Children gathered around an open fire, rubbing their hands together for warmth in the freezing desert winter.
A woman baked bread on a metal dome placed over a bonfire as snowflakes drifted down around her.
The camp is home to tens of thousands of people, including Syrians displaced from IS-held areas in Deir Ezzor and Raqa provinces, as well as Iraqis fleeing the city of Mosul across the border.
Recent arrivals from Deir Ezzor complained of the bitter cold and limited resources and said officials barred access to nearby Hasakeh city, controlled by Kurdish authorities.
"There are sick people in the camp and they won't allow us to leave," one Deir Ezzor resident in the camp said, without giving his name.
"We're detained here even if we have a sponsor... we appeal to international organisations to get us out, because the conditions here are very difficult," he added, his face wrapped in a scarf.
More than half of Syria's population has been displaced since the country's conflict began with anti-government protests in March 2011.
The war has also killed more than 310,000 people and drawn in players including neighbouring Turkey, government ally Russia, and jihadists like IS.
- 'It is safe here' -
The Observatory also said it had received reports from Al-Hol that displaced civilians there were prevented from leaving to nearby cities.
The monitor said it had documented the deaths of at least six people from Deir Ezzor, among them two children and an elderly woman, from lack of medical care and harsh conditions in the Rajm al-Salibeh area where the camp is located.
"We're happy to be in the camp because it is safe here, but the conditions for the Iraqis are better than ours," complained Suad, a former teacher from Deir Ezzor.
But Yerevan Hussein, a camp official, said all residents were being treated equally, despite limited supplies, including the recent arrivals from Deir Ezzor.
"They live in a special camp and the management of the camp is meeting their needs," she said.
She said camp officials were "helping those who wish to fly to Damascus or the Gulf," while those in need of medical attention were allowed to go to Hasakeh city if they were "sponsored by someone living there."