Aid worker diary: the dislocation of Syria’s displaced people

11 February, 2013
22 year old Aysha is just one of an estimated two million people who have been internally displaced by the Syrian conflict. A further 750,000 have sought refuge outside Syria. Credit: OCHA/David Gough
22 year old Aysha is just one of an estimated two million people who have been internally displaced by the Syrian conflict. A further 750,000 have sought refuge outside Syria. Credit: OCHA/David Gough

In a frigid two-room apartment in the Damascus suburb of Saboura, Fatimah fights back the tears. It’s been six months since she and her family fled their home under the cloak of night. Six months since she saw neighbours and friends, six months since she last watered the rose bushes that grew in her front yard. 

Fatimah says that it's only recently that she's been able to hold back the tears. "Every day, I remember the things I've lost," she said. “Every day I long for home, for the things we left behind.”

Home for Fatimah is now a dreary apartment in an unfinished six storey block populated entirely by families displaced by the war who have sought shelter in this relatively calm corner of the Syrian capital. I met her and her family one morning on a recent visit to Damascus and although it was the first time I’d been to Syria, her story was all too familiar.

Fatimah is just one of an estimated two million internally displaced people (IDPs) in Syria. A further 750,000 have sought refuge in neighbouring countries. Worldwide, Fatimah is one of an estimated 30 million IDPs.

In a downstairs apartment, 22 year old Aysha can barely muster a smile. Perhaps it’s the cold that at this time of the year rushes in through the glassless windows, seeps into the bones and never quite leaves.

She speaks haltingly, her sentences punctuated by the percussive thud of shellfire in the distance.

Aysha says that before the war she was a happy girl, full of excitement and the promise of her life to come. But that was before her young husband was killed, her child was born fatherless and the house where she grew up was abandoned by her family in a desperate flight to safety.

Stories like Aysha’s remind me that in 18 years reporting and filming throughout Africa, Asia and the Middle East, the displaced have been my almost constant companions.

Sudanese displaced by decades of civil war, Filipinos whose homes were vaporized in the firestorm of a volcanic eruption, Kenyans forced to flee by the politics of hate, Mozambicans uprooted by climate.

The question I always ask them is what it really means, deep down and at the bottom of their hearts, to be displaced, to lose everything, to wonder daily when or if normal life would ever return. 

In 2009 I tried without success to get permission to film in Syria's arid north east where years of drought and outdated farming practices were rendering the land unusable and livelihoods unsustainable. A steady trickle of people fleeing to Damascus and other urban centres was fast becoming a flow.

Four years later, the flow had become a flood, as the onset of a climate-related disaster gave way to a bitter civil conflict that has driven millions from their homes. People like Fatimah whose days are now spent pining for what they left, wondering if they’ll ever return.

And of all the IDPs that I have met around the world, Fatimah may be the one who most acutely expressed the specific sense of loss.

"Imagine that you were a perfectly sighted person who suddenly lost their sight and was without warning thrown into darkness.

“That is what it means to be displaced," she said. “Blindness.”

Reporting by David Gough,OCHA

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