“I am afraid of explosives,” a schoolboy in Washokani Camp in Northeast Syria (NES) professes. “I once saw a rocket near my uncle’s home and had to leave my village because of the war.” As many young people, he learns first-hand about life as a refugee in a tough world that is complicated by COVID-19.
Ayman (23) never thought the war would find its way to his village of Sheikh Ali. Life there was normal, compared to most Syrian areas. ISIS didn’t even constitute a threat; they focused on cities, not villages.
But one afternoon, in an instant, all that would change. “There were many signals and I was afraid, but we didn’t want to leave”, Ayman recalls. It was October 2019, the month “Operation Peace Spring
” loomed in Syria's northeast. The term is a code name for a military offensive coined and led by Turkish forces against Kurdish groups throughout NES. The offensive affected many areas in NES
with multiple airstrikes and artillery barrages.
That afternoon, “dark bombs” as Ayman described them, started falling from the sky.
One of them would hit Ayman and his family’s home, destroying it in its entirety. A shrapnel left by the bombing found its way to Ayman’s right leg. He was taken to a hospital in Al-Hasakah, but the leg couldn’t be salvaged.
A photo of Ayman. “Operation Peace Spring” took away his home and one of his legs.
The multi-area operation would come to an end just over a week later. Dozens were reported dead and hundreds of thousands were left displaced.
Among those hundreds of thousands were not only Ayman and his family, but also a group of six schoolkids. Through their ordeal, they would all come together to form a makeshift camp, a home away from their homes, with the hope of an imminent return.
Three years have passed, and none have yet made that return.
Located within Al-Hasakeh Governorate, Washokani Camp hosts a population of about 2,300 families and over 14,700 individuals. The camp consists of two schools, a market, and a COVID-19 isolation center. Its population is a mixed blend of Arabs, Kurds, Yazidis, and Turkmen, who all hail from the city and countryside of Ras Al Ain. They live in tents in the shape of domes, six meters wide and three meters high.
In one of the schools, the clock strikes 11:15. Classes come to a close. It’s time for students to depart. In the yard by the school, a group of six schoolkids are eager to learn who we are. A dapper 12-year old girl cannot hide her curiosity and starts a conversation in English, which leads to a spontaneous interview.
COVID-19 is one of the many challenges the kids face in the camp, but one they have learned to take seriously. Schools were closed during active curfews and a significant number of kids were absent for ten days or more. According to a teacher and one of the school’s founding members, a quarter of the school’s registered students were absent at some point.
“I got infected by COVID-19 through my mother,” one of the six students recalls. “I lost my sense of smell and taste, experienced fatigue, and couldn’t play outside with the other kids.”
The six students on the Washokani schoolyard. Their faces have been blurred for safety reasons.
Supported by the European Union (EU), iMMAP hosts the emergency COVID-19 coordination in NES, collecting and analyzing all pandemic-related data. NES saw a significant rise in cases in 2021
. According to data collected by our team, the number of COVID-19 cases more than tripled from just over 8,000 in 2020 to a little over 29,000 in 2021. NES has also registered a 39% positivity rate and an over 4% fatality rate, with over 1,500 lives claimed so far since the beginning of the crisis.
“My neighbor passed away from COVID-19,” another student recalls. “It’s a big issue”.
“The teachers fear COVID-19,” she told us. “Some of them even keep their mask on at all times.”
The school hosts around 1,000 students. The classes are conducted in three groups with each group overseen by 20 different teachers. All the students, as well as the teachers, are internally displaced persons (IDPs).
Encounters with Explosives
COVID-19 isn’t the only worry on the minds of those inside the camp.
Amid unabated and unrelenting warfare, unexploded explosive ordnance (UXO) is another source of anxiety.
UXOs come in various forms such as improvised landmines, booby-traps, and other explosive devices. Its presence is rife throughout Syria
, generating tens of incidents a month and leaving hundreds of victims in its wake. Since 2011, and at the time of writing, UXO has claimed 900 fatalities in northeast Syria alone.
One of the students had loved ones taken by such explosive ordnance.
“My cousin was killed by a mine explosion when he went to buy supplies for the house,” the student wistfully reminisces. He further adds, with a hesitant smile: “I’m afraid.”
Ayman, who hosts us for tea in his dome-shaped tent, had prior experience with an UXO and was aware of its dangers and risks.
“After the battles with ISIS, the area was contaminated with UXOs,” Ayman recalls. “One friend lost a leg, but I have since lost touch with him and don’t know how he is doing”. iMMAP is the Humanitarian Mine Action (HMA) coordinator in NES, collecting data about these contaminated areas and coordinating the clearing activities of various HMA organizations.
Thanks to these activities, the threat of UXOs seems to have quelled and appears faint, at least inside the camp.
“UXOs are not a big issue around here any more,” a teacher asserted. “People consider the area safe, since all UXO have been removed.”
Explosive Ordnance Risk Education
HMA organizations also offer Explosive Ordnance Risk Education (EORE) activities
, which aim to reduce the risk of injuries, or worse, inflicted by UXO by raising awareness and promoting safer behaviors. Some of these awareness activities include training sessions, leaflets and posters, billboards, school and short message service (SMS) campaigns.
In Washokani Camp, several children demonstrate awareness of the danger of UXOs.
“My father and mother advised me to not approach, nor play, and inform an older person whenever I come across a suspected UXO,” a student recalled. “They shared photos of UXOs with me, so I know what they look like.”
One HMA organization is situated not too far from the camp, a teacher informed us. “Whenever we find an UXO, we’re urged to not approach and alert the authorities”.
iMMAP also coordinates EORE activities within NES such as Training for Trainers (ToT), radio and school campaigns, among others.
“Since 2017, over 55% of the people in NES have had some form of awareness raising,” states Frank Boerhave, who is iMMAP’s designated manager of this project. “We still see frequent incidents, so we are working hard to make sure that we reach everybody“.
Despite everything, all the heartache and anguish, the students we had the fortune and pleasure to speak with remain hopeful. Some students spoke of their desire to become doctors, one aspires to be a teacher, and another dreams of becoming an astronaut and fly to the moon.
While another student has chosen to embark on a more familiar path: “I want to be a humanitarian to help people and provide them with food and water.”
But for many others, in this present moment, refuge or a fresh start away from Syria is the ultimate goal. The schoolteacher has relatives currently present in Europe, particularly Germany, with more seeking the same outcome.
In Ayman’s case, though, the war has forced him to put a dream of his on the backburner.
“I wanted to go to the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts,” Ayman says. “But it’s in Damascus and you have to be younger than 21 (Ayman is 23) to apply”.
Fortunately, that setback hasn’t deterred nor discouraged him from pursuing other aspirations. He currently studies law, has the desire to write a miniseries playing the lead role, and is looking at opening a mobile maintenance shop inside the camp.
Ayman, hopeful and determined, despite the struggles and setbacks.
Ayman doesn’t give up. It took a couple of falls, but he learned again how to ride a bike, on one leg.
About EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid
The European Union and its Member States are the world’s leading donor of humanitarian aid. Relief assistance is an expression of European solidarity with people in need all around the world. It aims to save lives, prevent and alleviate human suffering, and safeguard the integrity and human dignity of populations affected by disasters and man-made crises.
iMMAP is an international not-for-profit organization that provides information management services to humanitarian and development organizations, enabling partners to make informed decisions that ultimately provide high-quality targeted assistance to the world’s most vulnerable populations.