Abandoned in Idlib

Atmeh camp clings to the side of a hill on the edge of the Syrian-Turkish border. Colored plastic bags flap like flags trapped in the rolls of razor wire that separate the two countries. Turkish soldiers watch from a guard post on the hill above. And just to be clear, Atmeh camp is on the Syrian side of the border, part of Idlib province now under the control of the opposition.

Atmeh Refugee Camp, Idlib, Syria. June 17th 2013. Internally displaced child Syrian refugees in the Atmeh refugee camp, Idlib province Syria

As we enter the camp the scene is messy and chaotic. Water carriers and foam mattresses are being unloaded from a couple of small trucks, an ambulance screams past on its way to a Turkish hospital with a newborn child. A moment of panic and everyone scuttles for cover as a Syrian warplane is spotted in the distance, a truck mounted Doshka swivels and scans the sky, the danger passes and people re-emerge, a black plume of smoke rises from across the valley.
As first impressions go, Atmeh does not feel like a place of refuge. More than twenty thousand Syrians are living here, the largest camp for the internally displaced in Syria, the decision to come would not have been taken lightly, driven by fear and desperation and with nowhere else to go.

One after the other, thousands upon thousands of tents spread amongst the olive groves. The soil is rich and red and for a moment looks almost picturesque; the olive branch is a symbol of abundance, glory and peace but so far it has only provided a little shade from an unremitting sun. Drinking water is delivered by tanker, it’s not always enough, there is no electricity and the candles often cause fires and more heartache, many of the children seem to have coughs and colds.

Atmeh Refugee Camp, Idlib, Syria. June 17th 2013. Internally displaced Syrian refugees in the Atmeh refugee camp, Idlib province Syria

Fetid streams of sewage run down the hill as bare footed toddlers play, women do battle with the dust that permeates every pore and try to keep the inside of their tents as clean and tidy as the living rooms they left behind, desperate but still dignified. The men though are few and far between.

It’s June and already the heat is fierce, still it will get hotter and then another winter will come and with it the rain, the red earth will turn to rivers of mud and mix with the shit that doesn’t drain away.
With its much needed wealth of experience in dealing with awful situations like this the United Nations Refugee agency and World Food Program are unable to work here without the cooperation of the Syrian government, protocol preventing humanitarian assistance. The only help being provided comes from a small group of Syrian NGO’s based inside Turkey and a handful of Syrian expat charities. I came with the Camp Zeitouna Project charged with bringing some entertainment for the children, building a playground and football pitch, helping with education and holding creative workshops, a small distraction from a life of continuous struggle in a war that doesn’t discriminate against the innocent.

The children are not backward in coming forward, swarming around us asking for photographs to be taken, posing with gap toothed smiles and victory signs, holding our hands as though lifelong friends or long-lost uncles, till now the only fun had been provided by whatever could be put to use, an old bicycle inner tube or a plastic bag tied to a piece of string, popping the caps of water bottles. They have already been labeled Syria’s lost generation and are happy to feel as though they’ve not been forgotten, but we only have the power of distraction – those with real power cannot even overcome issues of protocol.
A little girl takes my hand, I ask her name, Mariam she says with a cheeky smile, a bob of blonde hair and eyes as blue as the not too distant Mediterranean. Where are you from Mariam I ask, Haas, she tells me. Do I know Haas she asks, I tell her I don’t but wish I did, she asks me my name and I tell her, I tell her I am English and that until very recently I lived in Damascus. Does she know Damascus, I ask, she doesn’t, Hass is a long way from Damascus we both agree.

A day later driving through the Idlib countryside we pass through the small town of Haas. It’s almost deserted, bullet riddled, bombed and buckled, this is the Syria we are familiar with now, war torn and devastated. I think of Mariam and her family, in which street did they live, which house. It would have been a typical Syrian town, I imagine her and her friends heading off to school with their pink backpacks. I can’t really imagine what Mariam has already had to endure, living in a muddy field surviving on hand-outs is the best the world has to offer her just now, the crisis in Syria is complicated we are often reminded and protocol has to be followed.

‘There are 6.2 million people, including 2.5 million children, displaced within Syria, the biggest internally displaced population in the World. The pace of displacement remains relentless. Well over 1.8 million people have been displaced in 2017, many for the second or third time’ UNHCR.

I wrote and published this back in 2013 but have decided to re-post since little has changed other than the recent arrival of COVID-19 to add insult to numerous injuries.

For further reading I have compiled a list of 14 great books on Syria ;


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49 thoughts on “Abandoned in Idlib

  1. Hi John. The comparative figures from COVID and the Syrian war jumped out at me recently. Only a few weeks back did the number of deaths from COVID start to exceed the number of deaths in the Syrian war (500,000 plus/minus). Also, only a few weeks back, did the number of COVID infection cases exceed the number of internally & externally displaced Syrians (11M to 12M plus/minus). Number of countries infected by COVID = 190 plus/minus. Number of countries where the Syrian war deaths have taken place = 1 (excluding if I may, some limited numbers in Lebanon and Turkey). What a world we live in.

  2. brookejcutler

    Oh, John. My goodness. Your voice is captivating. And the story. 😢It’s very hard not to feel my heart breaking when I think about…all of it. So beautiful you’ve have a chance to share some kindness with them. And tell their story. Thank you for re-sharing it. xx

      1. Things are good, thank you! Not sure if things will change soon – Borisov is not going to resign, no alternatives, people are kind of divided… but if you are still planning on visiting, John, let me know!!!

  3. Reblogged this on PTSD Beautiful Trauma and commented:
    Quote of the day: “We cannot stop HATE but we can bring PEACE to our selves and our shelves.” Ouch, I am sharing this blogpost by John Wreford. This Syria thing is controversial. I avoid talking politics in my pages. I won’t give a bitcoin for Trump campaign lol I understand empathically what you are doing or you hope to do with your selfless and freelance photographer activity. You are showing, as direct witness, a reality which is far from Western World understanding. You are mirroring one part of my soul and that’s why I want to share it. I appreciate your effort to shout out Syrians as people behind the stigma of Global Terrorism. Ain’t it? If this is your intention I approve it. Except you can’t expect Western World is prepared or willing to know more about those stories. You are a rare soulful voice on this WP. Perhaps one of the bigger hearts that are running on this Earth at this moment. I know a few. The British men I am getting to know it seems like you are educated to heal the world. I can’t say it better. Maybe Lady D’s legacy? In my case, I choose to focus attention on Western World stories because a big healing is required here and a big social hypnosys is on … hearts and minds are being medicated … this is my cause. While you are looking Eastern, for whatever reason, I am looking nearby the Western. And what I see I don’t like either cases. But I love what you are doing. Especially the literary collection of Syrian authors. You are giving a voice to Eastern and Balkans in our Western society. Someone got to do that lol Where are the brave gone? I would say, they went to Damascus. And settled lol Good luck. Stay safe x

  4. Sunra Rainz

    Hi John. It’s so valuable to get an insider bird’s eye view of such a situation that often gets forgotten about amidst all the other tragedies. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Amazing work! Very inspiring.It’s alway been my dream to travel to conflict zones and report on the plight of the millions of desperate people in the world.Not that anyone actually listens these days.Keep up the good work 🙂

  6. Pingback: Abandoned in Idlib – Peer to Peer

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