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Killing of woman by Syrian jihadi group sparks protests in camps

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham shot a woman in the head for smuggling fuel from the opposition areas into Idlib, prompting protests and clashes in the camps for the displaced.
A displaced Syrian girl rides in the back of a truck on the way to Deir al-Ballut camp in Afrin's countryside on Feb. 19, 2020.

A 28-year-old woman from a camp for the displaced in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib was shot on Feb. 10 by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra) near the Deir Ballut crossing in north Idlib. 

HTS forces opened fire on the woman as she was transporting diesel from the Olive Branch areas under control of the opposition-affiliated Syrian National Army (SNA). 

HTS, which controls Idlib, bans the transport of fuel from SNA-held areas to Idlib, considering this move to be part of smuggling operations. 

The woman, Fatima Abdul Rahman al-Hamid, was a widow and mother of four. She was displaced from the village of Sfuhen in the southern Idlib countryside.

Following the incident, residents of the Atmeh camp located near the Deir Ballut crossing attacked a security checkpoint and the crossing that is run by HTS and burned several caravans and tents where HTS-affiliated security forces are stationed.

In response, HTS’ security services sent reinforcements, stormed the camps in the town of Atmeh, and arrested and beat civilians, including a media activist who was covering the incidents. A child was wounded by a bullet when HTS security forces stormed the camps.

Al-Monitor spoke to the residents of the Atmeh camp. Umm Hassan, who declined to provide her real name fearing the same fate as Hamid, told Al-Monitor that she too smuggles diesel and gasoline to put food on the table. She became the only provider for her children with whom she has lived in a tent since her husband passed away. She receives no help, not even from her relatives who are refugees in Europe.

Umm Hassan said she was forced to smuggle diesel given the harsh circumstances prevailing in the Atmeh camp she has been living in for three years now.

A large number of the Atmeh camps’ residents smuggle fuel in order to feed their children and make ends meet, she said, although the profits they make from smuggling — ranging between 30 to 50 Turkish liras — is nothing compared to the high risks they face.

Umm Hassan explained that smuggling operations usually take place at night, which is dangerous. She recounted that one night, as she was moving with her child, the latter fell between the sand barriers at the HTS and SNA checkpoints. 

“We were really in danger that night, and HTS forces did not show any mercy. They saw us struggling and suffering as we moved between the barbed wires. My child was carrying five liters of diesel. They forced us to pour the diesel on the road and burned it in front of our eyes,” she said.

“We were beaten and insulted by those who claim to be Muslims. This is so unfair. We are displaced people who have been on the move with our children, who lost their fathers, from one camp to another. We make all these efforts to bring food to our children.” 

She added, “God willing, we will return to our homes with pride and dignity, and we will not be forced to do these works at all.”

Abu Ahmed, a displaced person who also refused to give his real name fearing HTS, told Al-Monitor, “My family here in the Atmeh camp consists of five people. We are surviving thanks to a small food basket we receive (from charity organizations) every month, which is never enough. … We collect firewood from the mountain for heating. I can truly tell you that we continue to live thanks to God’s mercy only.”

“These circumstances prompted women and children to smuggle fuel through the Deir Ballut crossing. They carry 5 or 10 liters of diesel to barely earn 10 Turkish liras (74 cents), which is less than one dollar, to buy bread and feed children. Yesterday (Feb. 10), a woman was injured. I heard that she was in miserable condition and was transported to Turkey, leaving her children, who already lost their father, in the camp without any provider,” he said.

“Where can people go? We cannot escape the regime, HTS and the Turkish gendarmerie, which fire at us if we try to go to Turkey. The guns are now pointed at us, while we are displaced people and helpless,” he said.

A video segment showing Hamid’s child has angered Syrian public opinion after it went viral on social media recently. In the video, which was broadcast on Syria TV, the child revealed that his mother was shot at by HTS elements and blood started flowing. He said his mother worked to provide for them and hoped she would come back to feed them.

Reports stated that Hamid died from her wounds hours after she was shot.

A local group called Jabhat al-Nusra Violations recently documented violations by HTS elements against civilians transporting fuel at the border checkpoints during 2021. In a statement published on Twitter Jan. 5, the group said HTS arrested five children on charges of smuggling fuel. 

In December, HTS seized 250 civilian cars at the Deir Ballut checkpoint on charges of smuggling fuel, said Assem Zaidan, director of Jabhat al-Nusra Violations group, in a press statement. He added, “In August, HTS members at al-Ghazzawiya checkpoint prevented civilians from bringing vegetables into Idlib and indiscriminately fired at them to force them to return.”

HTS has been expanding its military and civilian hegemony over Idlib through its so-called Syrian Salvation Government. It controls border crossings and the economy and has a monopoly over all commodities, foodstuffs and fuel. It also controls their prices and imposes royalties and taxes on business owners amid worsening living conditions in Idlib and a significant rise in the unemployment rate compared with the previous years.

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