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Children freeze to death in Aleppo refugee camp

At least four children have died from the cold in the Bab al-Salameh camp in the Aleppo countryside as supplies run low for Syria’s internally displaced.

BAB AL-SALAMEH, Syria — It was no easy task getting to the tent where baby Fatima froze to death on Jan. 13. The heavy rain and snow during the past couple of weeks had turned the ground of Bab al-Salameh camp into a muddy swamp, making it difficult to walk.

When Al-Monitor reached the camp Jan. 14, the sun was about to set and it was 2 degrees below zero Celsius. Although the rain had stopped, there was snow between the tents.

Dr. Ali Nasser, Bab al-Salameh’s medical director, led the way to where Fatima died. Her father, Rashid Ali, was trying to clear the mud and create a path leading to his tent. He asked Al-Monitor to wait a few minutes then allowed us inside.

The tent was more or less empty, with just three mattresses and a few covers stacked on one another. Fatima’s mother quickly cleaned up then sat in the corner next to her three children. She told Al-Monitor, “A few days after she was born, Fatima got sick from the cold. She started having breathing problems and got worse by the day, although we kept taking her to the clinic.”

Fatima’s mother stopped talking for a few seconds. She stuttered, then continued, “On the last day, her face was all blue. I felt that she was suffocating. Her father took her to the clinic in the middle of the night but when he came back, she had died.”

Before her 15th day, Fatima died in a fridgelike tent during Storm Huda, her father said.

According to the most recent statistics conducted by the Bab al-Salameh camp administration, more than 16,850 people — mostly children — live in the camp. The main difficulties plaguing the population are the muddy ground, congestion and the absence of a sewage network. There has also been a surge of new arrivals in recent months.

“How can a child not die from the cold if we, the adults, were almost freezing?” wondered Rashid, adding, “During the storm, snow and ice covered the entire tent. It was as if you were sitting in a freezer; even if you cover yourself with two or ten covers, you never get warm.”

He continued angrily, “The entire world knew about the storm days before it arrived. Why didn’t the organizations do something before we froze from the cold? We do not have anything to keep warm; the cold would have killed us if we hadn’t gathered and burned wooden sticks.”

Most of the families in Bab al-Salameh received heaters following a campaign organized by several relief agencies in collaboration with a number of donors on Jan. 10. But Rashid was one of the unlucky dozens of families who did not. Every morning, Rashid and his children go around searching for bits of plastic or newspapers they could burn for heat in a barbecue grill. They burn whatever they could find during the night for a bit of warmth.

“Fatima suffered from bronchiolitis due to a virus. However, this illness significantly worsened as a result of the cold and the smoke caused by unhealthy means of heating, and this is what happened to Fatima,” Nasser said. “When a child is born, he or she should be placed in a nursery or any warm place, where health care is provided. However, infants are shocked when brought into this world in a cold and windy tent. … It is impossible for such a place to be suitable for newborns. The parents will not be able to provide the warmth their children need no matter what.”

Fatima is not the first child to die as a result of the cold in Bab al-Salameh camp. Three other children have already frozen to death this winter. Nasser said, “Four children died of bronchiolitis due to the extreme cold wave during this month. … There is a crucial need for a children’s hospital in which we can provide health care, especially for newborns. We cannot stand and helplessly watch them die like this.”

Kilometers away from Fatima’s tent, residents stood in line waiting for fuel distributed by relief organizations. One of the supervisors said as he looked over the lists, “Within six days of the campaign we had organized during the storm, we have distributed 60 tons of wood and 45,000 liters of fuel. The camp’s needs are enormous. … The campaign could be extended for only a few more days if we get additional aid, but we are absolutely incapable of providing support for the entire winter season.”

People stand around a pile of firewood in the Bab al-Salameh camp in Aleppo’s countryside, Jan. 14, 2015. (photo by Mohammed al-Kathieb)

Wherever these people go, they face the threat of death. After fleeing the Syrian regime's air raids and the Islamic State, the displaced at Bab al-Salameh have to deal with the harsh environment, another hardship the refugees of Syria could do without.

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