BEIRUT: Tucked in a displacement camp alongside rows of olive trees, a partially destroyed bus with blown-out tires and shattered windows has provided Dunia and her four children barely enough shelter to survive the past two months.
In September, Save the Children interviewed and filmed Dunia and her children for a case study, while operating in displacement camps in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province.
In the video released with the case study, the broken-down bus is a mere skeleton riddled with bullet holes as it sits anchored in the soil. The once-bright blue and yellow paint has dulled and turned to rust. Inside, the seats have been cleared and replaced with makeshift beds. Clothes hang down the side of the aisle creating the minimal shade Dunia and her children need.
Her family has been displaced multiple times inside Idlib, according to the case study. Her husband was killed just days after she gave birth to her triplets, two of which died during birth. “After being displaced again and again [life] is even harder,” she said.
Idlib has witnessed an increase in aerial bombardment since the government launched a brutal offensive to recapture the last opposition stronghold in April of this year. According to U.N. field reports, the majority of the victims are women and children.
The oldest of Dunia’s children, Sanad, 10, remembers the missile that nearly killed his mother and destroyed their home. But the memories of pursuing an education still sit vividly in his mind. “I used to study and sit with my brothers and sisters in peace. We used to walk to school without hearing the sound of airstrikes and bombs,” he said, according to Save the Children.
Across Syria, 2.1 million children are out of school and 1.3 million are at risk of dropping out, according to the U.N. In Idlib, at least 44 schools have been damaged or destroyed recently, as attacks on educational facilities and personnel have risen.
“It is more bearable to live in it [the bus] in the summer,” Dunia told Save the Children, while cradling her 9-month-old baby. “Winter is around the corner. How can we live here, especially with a baby? It will destroy us.”
For thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs), weather conditions in northwest Syria present serious safety risks. For those who live in makeshift shelters or tents face extreme heat in the summer and freezing temperatures and risk of flooding in winter.
“The bus does not protect you from the cold or the heat. It is not a good place to stay but better than staying in the fields, under the trees,” Dunia said. Humanitarian groups have struggled to respond to Idlib’s overwhelming needs. Since the majority of camps for IDPs are over capacity, most turn to alternative, more improvised camps. Thousands of others live in open fields under olive trees.
According to a field report from Refugees International, an independent humanitarian organization, the rebel-held bastion is home to the largest number of IDPs per capita in the country, with half of the population having been uprooted at least once, and some having been displaced up to seven times during the conflict. Humanitarian groups have struggled to respond to the population’s overwhelming needs.
Being able to care for her children’s most basic needs has become nearly impossible for Dunia. In addition to suffering from diabetes and high blood pressure, she is unable to walk properly since her leg was amputated seven years ago after a missile hit her home in northern Hama. “I am not even able to provide my children with food,” she said. “Trying to get on [the bus] is very painful for me.”
The family is now fully dependent on the assistance and donations from the local council and other camp residents. “The local people here are generous and kind enough to give me bread and food,” she said.
Save the Children provides for Dunia and her family through Violet, a partner organization operating on the ground in northwest Syria. “From our side, we support her [Dunia] with food, mattresses, blankets, jackets and socks,” Bassoul told The Daily Star.
Dunia’s greatest desire is to give her children an education and a better life. “I wish them everything they want,” she told Save the Children. “They are deprived of the very basic necessities of life. Being a disabled woman with four children, I have no idea where to go. How can my family survive?"
Frequently, Dunia finds her mind wandering: “If the bus could move, I would want it to take me far away, to a safe place for me and my children. A place where there is no fighting and where I do not hear the sound of airstrikes and bombing.”