TEL RIFAAT, Syria: The days are still warm across the fertile plains of northern Syria around Aleppo, but night brings a chill – an ominous harbinger of winter’s approach and the deepening of the already severe humanitarian crisis gripping a country wracked by civil war. Warm temperatures and plentiful food have cushioned the blow somewhat for hundreds of thousands of Syrians displaced from their homes or living in refugee camps across the border. But the arrival of near-freezing temperatures could mean greater suffering and even deaths from exposure, as international aid agencies scramble to cope.
Among the first things to go will be the practice of sleeping outside to avoid the artillery and airstrikes that rain down late night death on homes.
“Most people sleep in the fields at night, out of fear of the bombardments of the towns,” said Abu Mohammad, who has taken to sleeping in the olive orchards outside Tel Rifaat, a rebel-controlled town north of Aleppo. “In the winter the suffering will only increase.”
Like many people in Syria, he asked that his real name not be used for fear of retribution should the government retake his town.
At a news conference earlier this month, actress Angelina Jolie, a special envoy for the United Nations Refugee Agency, reported that many of the refugees living in camps along the Turkish border were worried about the approach of cold weather. “It is a very large concern for all of us, and I hope we can all work together to make sure that ... nobody freezes to death in this very frightening time,” she said.
As the second winter approaches in an 18-month-old conflict that has claimed more than 20,000 lives, fighting has spread to many more parts of the country and people’s resources are dangerously low.
Abu Mustafa, Mohammad’s brother, said the family survived last winter on savings, but now the financial situation is much worse. “Last winter, people had money, but now people have nothing because there is no work,” he said.
“Most of the work was in Aleppo and most went there for jobs, but now they can’t.”
An agricultural breadbasket, northern Syria has food, but not everyone can afford it. In many cases, families are forced to flee to refugee camps on the border not only for fear of fighting but because they have run out of money.
The length of the conflict is also wearing people down, leaving them even more vulnerable, said Sybella Wilkes of the U.N. refugee agency.
“The more people are displaced, the longer they are living in difficult situations of hardship, the more stretched their coping skills are,” she said.
The U.N. agency is planning a new international appeal to help the refugees on the borders, as well as those still inside the country, including winterizing tents and distributing blankets and warm clothing. “The displaced are suffering from cold in the evening – this is a real concern,” Wilkes said.
She said the number of registered refugees has far exceeded earlier estimates, growing more than 12-fold from about 20,000 in June to 250,000 today.
Another 1.5 million Syrians are displaced inside the country, while an additional 1 million are in urgent need of assistance because they have run out of money for food and other essentials, according to U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliassan. A $180 million emergency response plan is only half-funded, he added.
Temperatures during the winter months can drop below freezing in northern Syria, and it often rains heavily. Most houses are designed to deal with the scorching summers, but are not well insulated against the cold.
Neighboring Turkey has already taken in 80,000 refugees in overflowing camps and for weeks had to temporarily close its borders to new refugees.
At the Bab al-Salameh border crossing, more than 5,000 Syrians are camped out in hangars once used by customs officials to inspect trucks - structures without walls, running water or electricity.
“When winter comes, how will I keep them warm?” asked Fatima Abdullah, gesturing worriedly at her tiny newborn twins as she sat on the concrete floor. Turkey has started admitting a few hundred Syrians at a time, but it’s unclear if everyone will be housed in the camps by the time the cold weather sets in.
While food supplies seem to be holding steady, the biggest challenge will be staying warm and preparing food. The parts of the country outside government control have to rely on smuggled supplies of gasoline and heating oil, which have already tripled in price.
Smugglers drive to government-controlled areas, usually to the east, load up their cars with butane tanks and jerry cans of gasoline and drive them back to the rebel-controlled areas.
“There are already shortages of kerosene used to heat homes and there is also a shortage of fuel and cooking gas. And when winter hits, the prices will go up for everything,” said Marixie Mercado of UNICEF, noting that the displaced tend to live in public buildings such as schools or stadiums that cannot easily be heated.
Many have taken refuge in construction sites or half-built houses without windows, which will offer little protection against the country’s wet winters.
UNICEF is stockpiling supplies, including baby blankets and thermal underwear for children, as well as stoves to heat schools – assuming the fuel is available. “People are cutting down trees to get wood,” said Abu Mustafa, relying on wood-burning stoves to cook as gas supplies have run out.
“We cut off a bunch of dead branches in our orchards and collected them, but the next time we went to our fields to pick them up, someone had stolen them. People are getting desperate.”
International agencies are working with local partners, particularly the Syrian Red Crescent to distribute food and supplies around the country, said Ben Parker of the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
The Red Crescent can cross the lines of the conflict. However, even then, their efforts have been stymied by the proliferating checkpoints and rising violence.
“It will be a bitter winter,” he warned.