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'We're prisoners': Syrians trapped in SDF camps after escape from IS

Refugees from IS-held areas say they have been forced into appalling conditions in SDF-run camps, and bribes are the only way to leave
A girl stands in an unidentified camp inside Syria (supplied)

Civilians fleeing the Islamic State (IS) group's two remaining Syrian strongholds face "horrific conditions" in dozens of poorly equipped camps on the outskirts of Syrian cities.

Many of these camps lack clean water, food and healthcare. Some are run by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, according to camp residents. The SDF denies it runs the camps, despite them being in territory under its control.

The fighting in areas where US-backed forces continue to battle IS militants has forced tens of thousands of Syrians from their homes into dozens of camps in Hasakeh and Raqqa provinces.

Many find themselves trapped in terrible conditions.

We are like prisoners in the camp, not even allowed to leave

- Ahmed, Arisha Camp

"Living in an actual prison would have been easier than living in one of these camps," said Ahmed, who fled his home in Deir Ezzor along with his parents and five brothers and moved to al-Sad camp, also known as Arisha.

Arisha is located in the southern suburbs of Hasakeh and is considered one of the biggest IDP camps housing about 6,000 people.

"We are like prisoners in the camp, not even allowed to leave," added Ahmed.

In a statement on 14 August, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said Syrian civilians in Arisha as well as in dozens of other poorly equipped informal camps face "terrible, terrible conditions".

"There is one camp called Arisha in Hasakeh governorate. The camp itself used to be an oil refinery, so you see children playing in toxic waste, drinking and bathing in contaminated water," ICRC spokesperson Ingy Sedky said.

According to Ahmed, six people died in Arisha recently due to rising temperatures and the lack of medical care.

"The ambulance comes to the camp every day because the women and elderly keep falling ill due to the heat, lack of hygiene and an abundance of insects, snakes, and scorpions."

About 70,000 people are living in such camps, which are often in hard-to-reach locations, complicating aid provision, according to the ICRC.

'Death Camps'

Mohamed Hassan, a Syrian activist heading the "Death Camps" Campaign, an online initiative launched last week to raise awareness about the conditions in Syrian IDP camps, said that civilians were facing deadly conditions in eight informal camps on the outskirts of Hasakeh and Raqqa, and which are run by the SDF.

"Many Syrians leaving their homes are transferred by SDF members to SDF-run camps which lack any source of water or medical facilities," Hassan told MEE.

Residents of the eight camps - Rajm Salibi, Arisha, Alhoul and Mabouka in the suburbs of Hasakeh, Ain Eissa and Karama in the suburbs of Raqqa, and Ruwaishid and Rukban near the Iraqi border - reported poor conditions, and said that vital resources, such as medical facilities and food, are lacking, reported the campaigners.

Many well-known Syrian activists, including Lina al-Shamy and others, have joined the Twitter campaign to raise awareness about the issue. 

In its report, the ICRC documented that tents at these camps tend to be placed in the middle of the desert, with snakes and scorpions posing a daily threat to the residents. Many of the camps are poorly equipped, lacking basic medical equipment and access to clean water, according to ICRC spokesperson Sedky.

"Most of the camps don't have doctors on site. They don't even have bandages, even the simplest things are not available. As a result, the camps' inhabitants are at risk of chronic diseases," Sedky said at the time.

Other camps lacked even the most basic items, including tents, with new arrivals sleeping in the open for up to 10 days while waiting for shelter.

Most of the camps don't have doctors on site. The camps' inhabitants are at risk of chronic disease

- Ingy Sedky, ICRC spokesperson

The ICRC also reported that around 50 percent of camp residents are children, with intense heat and overcrowding making the conditions even worse.

"At the same time, the sheer number of people arriving every day is adding to the catastrophe," he added saying that there were about 18,000 people dispersed across the eight camps, all of which lack basic services.

According to ICRC, IDP camps in Syria are cramped with some housing anywhere between 2,000 and 10,000 people. And as the fighting has continued, the numbers within the camps have been increasing, the Red Cross said in a statement earlier this month.

Hassan told MEE that one camp was established along the frontlines between the SDF and IS and have therefore been sites where civilians died due to the fighting.

"IS attacked the IDPs in the Rajm Salabi camp last month while it was fighting with SDF and this led to 37 people being killed inside the camp," said Hassan.

According to the campaign organisers, Rajm Salabi, located in the suburbs of Hasakeh, is run by the SDF and houses about 400 families, most of whom fled their homes in Deir Ezzor.

But SDF spokesperson Mustafa Bali told MEE that his forces did not manage any camps across Syria and are "solely preoccupied with fighting IS".

'Living in a prison'

After fleeing the violence around his home in Deir Ezzor, Mohamed, 22, was taken by a member of the SDF to the Karama camp in the suburbs of Raqqa and interrogated for hours before being left without a tent.

"We arrived at the camp to find nothing but sand. The women and children were taken to a tent but all the men were left to sit and sleep in the open with nothing to shade us from the heat of the desert," Mohamed told MEE.

The SDF wouldn't let anyone out of the camp unless they were ill or willing to pay a huge sum of money

- Mohamed, Karama camp

"After that, each one of us was searched and questioned by members of SDF to make sure we weren't affiliated with IS," he added.

According to Mohamed, when he tried to leave the camp, members of the SDF would not let him go without paying an extortionate amount of money.

"The SDF wouldn't let anyone out of the camp unless they were ill or willing to pay a huge sum of money," said Mohamed.

"For a young man like me, they wanted a huge amount."

Mohamed lived under harsh conditions in Karama until he found an opportunity to leave.

"I endured weeks in the camp sleeping in the open air, with no food but bread, no drinking water and no toilets," said Mohamed.

He paid the SDF $700 to leave the camp when a woman suffering kidney colic was transported to hospital after she herself paid them another $400.

Mohamed eventually reached Reyhanli on the Syrian-Turkish borders, but Ahmed remains in Arisha.

"Even trying to make a call is difficult at the camp," Ahmed told MEE.

"I'm always afraid that the SDF will punish me if they find out I've complained about the conditions [at Arisha] or tried to reach out."

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.